By John Dickerson
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio lied to the news media at a press conference he called Wednesday about how much jail lawsuits have cost the county compared to Los Angeles County. Then, he verbally flogged attorney Mike Manning and, after the briefing, one of his flacks threw a New Times reporter out of his downtown Phoenix offices.
“Our jail lawsuits have cost $30 million in 16 years,” Arpaio crowed to a crowd of TV, radio and print reporters. “L.A.’s jails have cost $400 million in five years, so when people claim we’re cruel and inhumane, it’s all horse manure! Horse manure!”
Actually, the L.A. County sheriff has paid out less than $100 million in lawsuits in the last five years, Rocky A. Armfield, that county's risk manager, said in a phone interview immediately after Arpaio's press conference.
Put simply, Arpaio quadrupled the real number at his propaganda session.
Arpaio’s $30 million figure was also wrong. You can see the math behind the actual amount, $41 million, in New Times' December story "Inhumanity Has a Price."
Asked about the $400 million figure, Armfield tells New Times, “That’s very high. That would be inaccurate. For example, in the fiscal year of '07, the entire county, approximated $50 million. That’s county-wide, so the [L.A. County] sheriff alone would be much less than that.”
Armfield said the $400 million figure is roughly equivalent to five years of the risk-management budget for the entire county of Los Angeles. As for what L.A. County sheriff's lawsuits have cost, he said, “Over five years, it would likely be a little less than $100 million.”
Proportionately, that's less than what Maricopa County's paid out; L.A. County has almost three times as many residents.
Unfortunately, few of the reporters seemed aware that they were being bamboozled by the 75-year-old lawman and his staff. After touting the incorrect number, Arpaio bragged that he has won the last seven lawsuits brought against him by inmates.
The New Times reporter noted that Arpaio has more than 2,500 inmate civil rights lawsuits filed against his office in federal court alone.
“The 2,500 number means nothing!” MCSO flack Jack MacIntyre claimed. He later added, "as the old adage goes, 'Anybody can sue anyone for anything.’”
The New Times reporter asked McIntyre for an explanation of why the 2,500 lawsuits against Arpaio don't matter when fewer than 100 federal lawsuits have been filed against sheriffs or chief jail custodians in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston combined.
Arpaio appeared taken aback, and then touted, “How would you know that? Do you read the New Times?! That’s garbage!”
Arpaio was told that the figure comes from public records, precisely from federal court records.
“Well, let us know how you got that," Arpaio said. "It’s hard to get stats. I’d like to know. You mean 100 lawsuits in L.A. County? I just said $400 million they paid out in five years.”
The sheriff was then asked exactly where he got the $400 million number.
"It comes from them. Statistics!” Arpaio shot back.
MacIntyre interrupted, “We had some research done this past week, and Lieutenant Mike Wilkins got the information from L.A. County itself. That’s from them.”
Unfortunately for fall-guy Wilkins, the stats are about $300 million off.
Since Arpaio asked where he could find such lawsuit statistics, here’s a basic, unofficial Web site that gives access to federal court dockets. He'll want to go to the court for official research, but this is a handy ballpark tool.
He can can type in Arpaio and more than 2,500 lawsuits surface. If he types in the last names of other sheriffs (and selects their federal court branch), he'll see fewer than a couple of dozen per sheriff. The suits are even labeled "civil rights" or "jail conditions" for his ease.
That is, If Arpaio even knows how to use a computer... Joe, just ask poor Wilkins to do it for you.
Later, when another reporter asked MacIntrye how many lawsuits have been filed against Arpaio, the flack replied, “How many lawsuits? We don’t know.”
Next, Arpaio went on a tirade about Manning: “This attorney brags about taking down Governor [Fife] Symington and taking down [Charles] Keating. And his big mission is to take down the sheriff. He’s got a long wait.
“Do not give into Manning’s garbage that he throws out,” Arpaio beseeched reporters. “It’s not your fault. You’re only aware of what you’re told.”
Apparently Arpaio believes just that. After all, he'd just told a $400 million whopper with the cameras rolling.
Sadly, most of the reporters in attendance seemed to trust the sheriff’s math. But some kept asking Joe to reveal how many times he’s been sued and how many suits he’s lost. Arpaio didn’t answer the questions directly.
“I’ve been accused. Manning and others say I cultivate a culture of cruelty in the jails,” Arpaio said. “He’s said that many times in the media. There is no culture of cruelty in the jails!”
Arpaio then talked about what he calls "Manning’s favorite number" of $8 million. Indeed, Manning won an $8.25 million settlement in the Scott Norberg case. Now Manning's suing the county for $8 million on the behalf of deceased inmate Deborah Braillard. Or as Arpaio put it, “The death of that lady.”
Asked if there have been any settlements in the last year, MacIntyre said, “I can’t think of any significant settlement in the last year.” He paused. “I mean there was one. I think there was one, uh, that might have been $2 million.”
The one for $2 million was in the case of inmate Brian Crenshaw, also brought by Mike Manning.
No wonder Arpaio's so livid about his "garbage." It's expensive garbage. Expensive for county taxpayers.
Arpaio still maintains that Crenshaw simply fell off his bunk bed. Even though evidence shows that he was beaten to death, and jail records confirm that he was left alone in a solitary-confinement cell for six days after the beating.
Arpaio and MacIntyre suggested the settled jail lawsuits were the fault of the county's insurance companies. You know, they're the ones who decided they must pay. Yeah, we all know how much insurance companies dearly love doling out millions and millions of dollars.
“Every time we go before a jury we win!” the sheriff boasted. Nope. In the wrongful death lawsuit brought on the behalf of deceased inmate Charles Agster, a jury awarded $9 million to Agster’s family.
Arpaio then said anyone in the room could visit his jails at any time. “I have an open-door policy. Any one of you can go in there at anytime and interview inmates,” he said. New Times has put in a request to see if the sheriff will keep his word on that promise. We’re not holding our breath, just our noses.
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The press conference wrapped up, and reporters began shuffling out of the room. Others had specific questions for MacIntyre. The New Times reporter was talking with a La Voz photographer about his winning Arizona Press Club photo when another of Arpaio's flacks, Paul Chagolla, interupted, “What’s your name?”
When he was told, Chogolla ordered the New Times writer to "please step outside.”
He growled, “You do not have permission to be here. New Times is not welcome on this floor” of the Wells Fargo building, where taxpayers rent space for MCSO brass.
So much for public meetings, and that "open-door policy." As he has so many times before, Chagolla then escorted a New Times journalist out the door.