Stephen Lemons Column

After Two Decades of Shilling for Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Architect of His Clownish Publicity Stunts Leaving

Is it possible for a successful flack to have a conscience? 

No offense to the many honest and diligent PR reps, public information officers and spokesmen and -women out there, but some of the best in that profession are real sleazeballs, amoral sociopaths who would justify Kim Jong-un dropping an H-bomb on San Fran, if they were paid well enough to do it.

Hey, I'm not being a snob here, as similar observations can be made of politicians, lawyers, and, well, reporters, many of whom would crawl over a corpse to get a story.

At least in the case of lawyers and spinmeisters, they're paid well enough to ditch their moral compasses, if they ever had them to begin with.

Which is one reason why so many reporters end up going over to "the dark side," as public relations is often referred to by journalists. It pays better. And it's not like you have to believe in what you're selling to the public.

After all, the truth is no obstacle to a good flack.

Take Lisa Allen, Sheriff Joe Arpaio's longtime media wrangler, who recently confirmed the rumors I'd been hearing for a while that she soon will end her 23-year reign as Arpaio's top mouthpiece and mythmaker.

Allen told me that she's retiring February 2 and will relocate to Idaho to live with her relatively new spouse, an ex-MCSO detention officer who already has made his way to tater country.

"My husband wanted to move out of state, and I want to stay with my husband," she explained via e-mail. "Hate to leave the sheriff. Despite what [New Times thinks] of him, I think he is the greatest."

It's an odd time to say sayonara to the MCSO, or just the right time, depending on how you look at it.

Arpaio, 83, is running for re-election again this year, and though he has no significant opposition at the moment, that could change once federal Judge G. Murray Snow rules on the sheriff's contempt trial, which concluded in November.

Arpaio and his chief deputy, Jerry Sheridan, have admitted to civil contempt of the judge's orders in the ACLU's big civil rights suit Melendres v. Arpaio — you know, the one in which Snow found Arpaio and the MCSO guilty of widespread racial profiling.

However, they and their three co-defendants, who have not admitted fault, could be on the hook for fines they may have to pay out of their own pockets.

And it is quite possible that Arpaio and Sheridan will face a criminal contempt prosecution ordered by Snow.

Last year's trial was grueling and involved revelations that Arpaio had investigated the judge and the judge's wife, as well as Arpaio's employing a purported Seattle computer guru to sniff out a nonexistent conspiracy theory involving Snow, all at taxpayer expense.

Additionally, Arpaio and Sheridan likely perjured themselves. To this point, Judge Snow stated on the last day of trial that he was "concerned with Sheriff Arpaio's willingness to tell the truth while he is on the stand."

Joe Arpaio boasts about milking the Birthers for cash in The Joe Show from Voice Media Group on Vimeo.

The trial lent itself to a ton of bad press for the sheriff. Allen was present for some of the trial, occasionally accompanied by longtime Arpaio flunky Len Sherman, who co-wrote Arpaio's two memoirs.

I jokingly asked them at one point if the plan was for her to resign and for Sherman to take over. They both waved me off.

Allen remains mum about her possible replacement. One insider has suggested that MCSO officer Chris Hegstrom, who works beneath Allen now, might ascend.

Allen actually told me in our e-mail exchange that she is looking for a way to freelance for the MCSO from Idaho.

"We're talking about it," she wrote. "Nothing has been decided yet. You know the county — a lot of hoops to jump before anything ever gets done."

Instead of billing the taxpayer, why doesn't she just work for Arpaio's campaign guru, Chad Willems, who will have millions to spend on the re-election effort?

"Willems pays for political things," she replied. "And, yes, you are correct: They certainly have money, but politics is not my interest nor is it what I would do as a contract worker."

In other words, she'll double dip into the public trough, if she can.

As for her supposed aversion to politics, that's rather disingenuous, given that her work puffing up Arpaio, selling him to the media, and creating spectacles for the press to devour has helped him get re-elected.

Granted, the press always was there, waiting with canine anticipation to lap up the latest ridiculousness churned out by Allen and Arpaio, whether it was parading half-naked prisoners through the streets or having the sheriff swear in Spider-Man as a special deputy or holding a talent competition in Tent City, referred to as "Inmate Idol."

Arpaio's reputation for cruelty also served as media fodder, everything from the slop fed those in stir to the summer heat in the tents to the all-female chain gangs.

Allen herself once publicly referred to Arpaio as a "media whore," one she had no problem pimping.

This never is more blatant than in Phoenix filmmaker Randy Murray's brilliant 2014 documentary The Joe Show, where Allen is seen directing Arpaio like an actor on a stage, telling him when to tap his foot or what emotion to convey.

"[Arpaio] loves the camera," Allen says in the film, justifying the constant hunt for publicity. "He has a good time doing this. The public seems to like what he does. The media seems to like it because it fills some empty air time. So what is the downside, exactly?"

The downside has been the racial profiling, the abuse of power, the misspent public money, the retaliation against Arpaio's enemies, the unsolved sex crimes, and the lengthy line of dead and injured in Arpaio's jails, not to mention the cost of all of the above, which I've estimated at $250 million in taxpayer funds since Arpaio took office.

Allen attempts to distance herself from the 2007 arrests of New Times' founders in the film, but her criticism of the MCSO's move mainly seems to be that it was bad publicity, not that there was anything wrong with it.

I also should mention that in the Murray documentary, Allen is seen strategizing at a restaurant with Willems, Arpaio and Sheridan over the MCSO's laughable investigation into President Obama's birth certificate.

This was an overtly political meeting, Lisa, by the way.

This aside, Allen told Arpaio he should dress up in clown shoes for an upcoming birther presser, which she clearly disdained.

But when it came time for the media event, who was front and center asking the press to "keep an open mind"? Allen, natch.

Interestingly, in a secret recording made in 2009 by then-Deputy Chief Frank Munnell, Allen seemed to have a pang of conscience over Arpaio's relentless pursuit of illegal aliens.

She told Munnell she was "sick" of the racial-profiling allegations against the MCSO.

"You know what bothers me is, why are we doing this?" she asks. "Why are we going there?"

Munnell told her it was to "snub people's face in it" — and to send the message that Arpaio will "do what the fuck he wants."

"Is there a law enforcement reason for that?" she wondered.

Munnell replied, "No, of course not."

And yet, Allen's office continued to pump out press releases trumpeting Arpaio's crackdown on the brown.

She also helped facilitate Arpaio's mean-spirited press appearances, and rationalize a policy that she seems to have known was morally wrong. Not to mention, as the court has determined, illegal.

On another subject in the same recording, Allen tells Munnell that she is bound to "tell the truth," as she is a Jehovah's Witness.

That may have been an ironic statement, I don't know.

But if Allen really does have a conscience, I feel sorry for her. She has a lot to answer for.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons