When Sheriff Joe Arpaio sued the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in 1994, challenging its authority to cut his budget, the action was widely viewed as a publicity stunt.
Not so, argued the sheriff, assuring the public that he was entirely serious. Besides, Arpaio pointed out, taxpayers wouldn't pay for his constitutional hubris. He claimed his legal fees would be paid by the Maricopa County Deputies Association, a fraternal group, not the public.
Records obtained from the Sheriff's Office last week indicate otherwise.
Between December 1994 and April 1995, four payments totaling $39,350 were made to the firm which handled Arpaio's lawsuit--payments that were drawn on the county's Jail Enhancement Fund, a special source of public money.
Arpaio's payments to his lawyer were among several questionable expenditures made from this fund, which is overseen by the state Department of Corrections. Collected from surcharges on traffic violations and other infractions, the money is distributed to Arizona's sheriffs specifically for the enhancement of jail facilities, jail operations and the training of detention officers. During fiscal 1994-95, $2.36 million was distributed statewide; Maricopa County's share was $718,000.
Other sheriffs say they use the money conservatively, carefully justifying expenditures as plainly jail-related. But records of Maricopa County's uses of the fund since the sheriff took office in 1993 show a willingness by Arpaio to stretch that definition.
And he's had little reason not to. Vague statutes, lenient state officials and a lack of legislative oversight have allowed Arpaio to interpret "jail enhancement" widely.
Take his payments to Newscount Inc., for example.
Arpaio pays an average of $900 each month to the video news-clipping service. Since March 1994, Newscount has provided Arpaio with copies of his appearances on PrimeTime Live, Nightline and other programs. Total expenditures for this service from the Jail Enhancement Fund to date: $11,249.15.
Arpaio claims the Newscount service is not only jailrelated, but absolutely essential.
"A lot of things are said in the jails that can be used against you in a civil suit," Arpaio tells New Times. "I go through the jail, I live in tents, I interrelate with the prisoners. They scream at me, I scream at them. I want to know what they say, and I want to know what I say. I want to know what the press reports. This is a way to protect myself when certain allegations are made."
When told of Arpaio's spending of jail-enhancement money for copies of his TV appearances, the state official charged with overseeing the fund does a double take. "He spent it on what?" Larry Beddome asks.
Beddome's title is intergovernmental liaison, and he's overseen the Jail Enhancement Fund for the Department of Corrections since the fund was created by the Legislature in 1982. When Arizona sheriffs want an opinion about an expenditure of jail-enhancement money, they call Beddome. In general, he says, he goes along with the borderline cases.
But Beddome says he had no idea that Arpaio has paid Newscount, and he admits that it sounds out of bounds.
"Well, he's the one that approved it," Arpaio says of Beddome during an interview last week also attended by four of the sheriff's subordinates.
"If he didn't like those, he would have called us," says Deputy Chief Tim Overton.
"We would hope that he would," adds Deputy Chief Larry Wendt. "... all of these jail-enhancement funds pass through the DOC before they come to us. And then our report on how we spend them goes to the DOC."
But copies of the county's last three annual reports to Beddome's office make no mention of the Newscount payments. That's why Beddome hadn't heard of them until New Times obtained a list of jail-enhancement expenditures.
Beddome says he doesn't see line-item expenditures of jail-enhancement money from sheriffs because the paperwork would bury him. Besides, he says, even if he didn't like the way a sheriff spent the money, there's little he can do about it. That's up to the Legislature, which gets its reports on the fund from the auditor general.
A spokesman for the Auditor General's Office says that sheriff's offices are only audited once every three years, and those audits don't always include jail-enhancement funds. Maricopa County's use of the fund hasn't been audited since January 1993, Arpaio's first month in office.
Although he says he had no cluethat Arpaio was paying Newscount, Larry Beddome says he was aware of the sheriff's payments to his lawyer.
Arpaio mounted his legal challenge to the Board of Supervisors' authority after it cut the sheriff's 1994-95 budget by $5 million. In January 1995, a judge ruled against the sheriff, and Arpaio, after vowing to appeal, dropped the matter in April.
Arpaio says he was telling the truth on September 16, 1994, when he told an Arizona Republic reporter that no public funds would go to the lawyer, Robert Yen, who represented the sheriff in his lawsuit. He says it became apparent two months later that the Deputies Association wouldn't be able to cover the legal fees. So Arpaio says he looked for an alternative source of funds.
It was then, he says, that he contacted Beddome to check the legality of using jail-enhancement funds. Beddome okayed the expenditure in a letter he sent the sheriff.
But Beddome's letter was dated July 19, 1994, nearly two months before Arpaio even filed the lawsuit. So when Arpaio told the media on September 16 that he did not intend to use public money on his lawsuit, he'd already checked with Beddome to make sure he could.
"Why would we go [to Beddome] two months before [we filed the case] when wehad the Deputies Association?" Arpaio says. "That's not the case. That came in after we ran out of money with the Deputies Association."
At this point in the interview, two of the sheriff's subordinates came to his rescue: Wendt and Overton claim they had communicated with Beddome without Arpaio's knowledge.
When New Times asked for the letter sent to Beddome inquiring about spending jail-enhancement funds on the lawsuit, Overton said the clerk who would have a copy of it was out sick. Beddome said he couldn't locate the original letter, but is looking for it.
Arpaio refuses to say how much the Deputies Association--which is funded in part by deputies' dues--paid Yen before the sheriff began dipping into the public fund. A spokesman for the association says those records will take some time to retrieve.
Even after being shown Beddome's July 19 letter, Arpaio insisted that it was only after his lawsuit was filed on September 16 and after Deputies Association money ran out that he first checked into spending jail-enhancement funds.
"That's when we discussed it with our attorney, who said it was legal," the sheriff says. But when pressed to confirm that Yen had assured the legality of spending public funds on the lawsuit, Arpaio backpedals.
"I don't know. I'm not sure he said it was legal," the sheriff says.
So where did the sheriff get a legal opinion on the matter?
"We got it from Beddome, right?" Arpaio asks his aides. "Beddome is the guy you talked to?"
Beddome says he did, in fact, get a "legal opinion" on using JEF money to fund Arpaio's lawsuit--from some attorney general's staffers he consulted in a bar during a Flagstaff retreat. He says they said it sounded fine to them, and for Beddome that was good enough.
Beddome says that as far as he knows, there is no written opinion by an attorney confirming the legality of Arpaio's use of public money to sue the county Board of Supervisors.
Arpaio says he doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. "This is not taxpayers' money, this is coming out of the prisoners," he says. "All this stuff is not taxpayers' money, so, you know, this is great when you can use prisoners' fines.
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"When we think of taxpayers' funds, we're thinking more or less of the general fund; you know, county funds. So we can argue the point whether that's taxpayers' money or not. I look at taxpayers' money in the sense of when you pay taxes and it goes into general funds versus whether you receive money directly from fines and so on. So that's a matter of argument."
It's an argument the sheriff is likely to lose. In a 1992 auditor general's report, there's no ambiguity about the nature of the money: "As the Jail Enhancement Fund monies meet this definition of 'public money,' the Sheriff's Office is wholly accountable to the citizens of the State," it reads.
The auditor general is scheduled to examine Arpaio's use of the Jail Enhancement Fund later this year.