Histrionics Lesson

Again, a judge bends over and allows Sheriff Joe Arpaio to sneer at Arizona's public records law

There has been an ugly string of horrific events inside Arpaio's jails: beatings, deaths of inmates strapped into medieval "restraint" chairs, suicides, and deaths caused by detention officers' failure to supply routine medical treatment.

Time and again, these tip-of-the-iceberg public records showed Arpaio doing whatever was necessary to further his political career, even if it meant wrecking the lives of innocent people through illegal wiretaps, unwarranted surveillance and entrapment ("The Plot to Assassinate Arpaio," August 5, 1999, and "Unlikely Unabomber," December 19, 2002).

This is not a feud. It is a battle to defend the constitutional rights of Arizonans against a police agency that has the power to arrest, incarcerate and kill with impunity. Unfortunately, New Times has been able to count even fewer allies than President Bush in his war with Iraq.

The Arizona Republic, where the sheriff's son-in-law is deputy editor of the paper's editorial pages, rarely finds fault with Arpaio. The East Valley Tribune isn't much different. And TV news (from which former anchorwoman Lisa Allen-McPherson sprung) for the most part regurgitates propaganda generated by the MCSO's disinformation office.

New Times had no choice but to turn to the courts. We had hoped that Judge Jones would see through the claims of Arpaio's lawyers, that Jones would see that the evidence New Times presented was incontrovertible.

But the judge was no more up to the task than his predecessors. As Arpaio notes in his self-congratulatory statement, this was not the first time New Times has lost a public records lawsuit filed against the MCSO.

The first major public records case we lost was in April 1998 when Superior Court Judge Rebecca Albrecht ruled that financial records maintained by Arpaio's volunteer posses were not subject to the state public records law.

New Timessought the records after learning that posse members and MCSO deputies had collected about $500,000 in cash from the sale of pink underwear. The cash was taken in paper bags to MCSO offices under the direct control of Arpaio's chief deputy, David Hendershott. Thousands of dollars later turned up missing ("Undie-Gate," April 2, 1998).

Earlier this year, New Times lost a special action before the Arizona Court of Appeals seeking an order directing the Maricopa County Recorder's Office to unseal Arpaio's real estate records. A state law allows police, judges, prosecutors and public defenders to seek removal of their addresses and phone numbers from records filed at the County Recorder's Office.

But rather than simply redact the address and phone number of Arpaio's personal residence -- as the law intended -- County Recorder Helen Purcell removed all documents related to the sheriff's extensive commercial and residential real estate holdings. That's right, the documents were simply removed from public review. These are records that would be readily available regarding the real estate dealings of any of the rest of us.

All we have been able to find out about Arpaio's real estate ventures is that he has invested large sums of cash -- at least $790,000 -- into three commercial projects ("Sheriff Joe's Real Estate Game," July 1, 2004, and "Stick It to 'Em," July 8, 2004).

The appeals court, in ruling against New Times, inexplicably said it didn't know if it was possible for the Recorder's Office to simply redact Arpaio's home address. Apparently, rarefied court members aren't familiar with the existence of black Magic Markers.

With the county and state courts so far abdicating their duty to enforce the law when it comes to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, it is now up to MCSO employees to courageously step forward with evidence of the widespread skulduggery that I believe permeates the sheriff's office. I'm calling on them to leak it to us.

Otherwise, what the sheriff calls a "slam-dunk" on New Times will become a knockout punch to the citizens of Arizona.

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