Bird in Hand

U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton has a rare opportunity to investigate Sheriff Joke. Will he do it?

In the weeks leading up to last September's Republican primary election for sheriff, challenger Dan Saban predicted that someday someone inside Sheriff Joe Arpaio's inner circle would disclose damaging information that would end Arpaio's political career.

Might that day soon arrive?

Federal prosecutors now have a rare opportunity to obtain sworn testimony from one of Arpaio's top aides about longstanding allegations of criminal misconduct inside the nation's fourth-largest sheriff's department.

It's up to U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton to seize the moment and convene a federal grand jury to shine a spotlight on Arpaio and his executive staff.

Charlton has a star witness at his mercy. If he chooses, the U.S. Attorney can dig deep into Maricopa County Sheriff's Office operations by grilling Sergeant Leo Richard Driving Hawk Sr.

As a former member of Arpaio's notorious threat assessment squad, Driving Hawk knows details of some of the MCSO's most sensitive and controversial investigations. The sheriff personally assigns deputies to this unit, which was officially formed to investigate alleged death threats against Arpaio, but also probes the sheriff's political rivals and disgruntled employees.

Something else that puts Driving Hawk in the know about the MCSO's inner workings is his latest supervisory position in the department's internal affairs division.

But what has gotten Driving Hawk in trouble with the feds has to do with his other job as vice president of the United States Reservation Bank & Trust Company. In that role, along with his father and brother, he is accused of orchestrating an $88 million Ponzi scheme; the three allegedly siphoned more than $2.5 million into companies controlled by their family.

On August 2, Driving Hawk signed an agreement with federal prosecutors to plead guilty to one felony count of concealing from authorities that his company was committing wire fraud.

As part of the deal, Driving Hawk is required to provide information to the government on "all criminal activity known to the defendant."

A lot of people are hoping that Charlton won't just use Driving Hawk's testimony to prosecute others involved in the bank scam, but will require him to testify about MCSO operations.

Driving Hawk is facing up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but he could receive supervised probation depending on his level of cooperation with authorities.

Charlton should milk Driving Hawk for every ounce of information about the internal operations of the sheriff's office. Driving Hawk and Arpaio are joined at the hip. Arpaio has provided cover for the officer for more than three years and continues to make sure he gets a healthy paycheck.

If Charlton puts the screws to Driving Hawk, the 15-year MCSO veteran could become Arpaio's version of John Dean, the infamous aide to former President Richard Nixon who revealed during Watergate hearings the existence of secret tape recordings in the White House that eventually led to Nixon's resignation in 1974.

Arpaio may not have incriminating tapes, but he does possess a ton of public records that he's refused to release to New Times, despite my persistent requests that he produce them under the Arizona public records law. Just recently, Superior Court Judge Michael D. Jones ruled against New Times in our attempt to establish that the MCSO acted in bad faith by refusing to release public records either in a timely manner or at all ("Histrionics Lesson," August 11).

It is my hope that Charlton, who is removed from the good-old-boy county courts and prosecutorial system, will do what local and state appeals court judges in this town are loath to do -- stand up to the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America."

There's no doubt in my mind that the sheriff's top aides have helped their boss further his political career by working to destroy rivals and silence critics.

Driving Hawk has played a key role in several MCSO witch-hunts, including the infamous entrapment case against James Saville ("The Plot to Assassinate Arpaio," August 5, 1999) and the politically driven retribution investigation of Jim Cozzolino ("Joe's Spies," March 25, 1999).

Saville, Cozzolino and Saban all have civil suits pending against the sheriff's office alleging that the MCSO abused its police authority for political purposes.

In Saban's case, Arpaio's people spread a ridiculous pre-Republican primary claim that Saban, 49, had molested his foster mother when he was a young teenager ("Outlaw Joe," July 22, 2004). The sheriff's goons dropped the dime on a TV reporter, who was fired when it was learned that he had aired the report after contributing to the sheriff's campaign. The investigation by an outside police agency was dropped for lack of evidence, naturally, but the damage was done.

Current and former MCSO employees tell me that Arpaio's senior staff has ordered destruction of public records, installed unauthorized wiretaps, and bent the truth at personnel hearings to weed out department employees seen as disloyal.

The groundwork for a federal grand jury investigation has already been laid. Saban, Saville and Cozzolino, among others, have provided extensive information to a Phoenix FBI agent related to allegations of serious misconduct by the MCSO.

I don't know whether the FBI is actively conducting an investigation or is simply collecting information about the actions of Arpaio and his senior staff. The FBI agent involved didn't return my call.

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