In February, New Times reported that Sheriff Joe Arpaio had made questionable payments from state jail enhancement funds--a source of public money that normally gets little attention from the public or press.
After the article appeared, County Attorney Richard Romley asked the state auditor general to look into the expenditures as part of a regularly scheduled audit.
Seven months later, the Auditor General's Office finished an investigation of Arpaio and several other sheriffs, and last week sent out its conclusions: Arpaio had indeed misused the jail enhancement fund.
JEF is funded with fines and penalties levied in the state's courts and is distributed to various agencies under guidelines set by a criminal justice commission.
Each year, more than $700,000 of that money is set aside for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office to upgrade the county's jails.
Confirming what New Times had reported in February, the auditor general concluded that Arpaio misspent jail enhancement funds on attorney fees and videotapes of his television appearances, among other things.
In total, the auditor general found that Arpaio had misused $122,419.
The audit criticizes other sheriffs as well, but mostly for spending JEF money for items that should have been paid by the county general fund.
Arpaio, however, is singled out for spending large amounts of money that couldn't be considered jail-related at all, including:
"News videotaping services of the sheriff's appearances--$11,969.
"Attorney fees for the County Sheriff's Office lawsuit regarding its operating budget--$39,350.
"Conference and travel costs for the sheriff to attend National Sheriff's Conferences over a three-year period--$9,075.
"Training, travel and conferences for employees who had no jail-related operations or whose curriculum did not pertain to jails--$7,015.
"Computer equipment and supplies for divisions not related to jail facilities--$45,135.
"Membership fees and dues of various organizations not related to corrections, detention, or any other jail-related profession--$2,600.
"Exercise equipment for County Sheriff's Office personnel--$2,642.
"Banquets for volunteers and other non-jail-related miscellaneous items--$4,633."
Pima County was also found to have spent money from its jail enhancement fund that couldn't be justified as jail-related. The total: $370.
When New Times confronted Arpaio with records of the expenditures last February, the sheriff dismissed them by saying that JEF money wasn't public money.
"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," Arpaio said.
Now he's arguing something different. Since the auditor general has confirmed that the funds are indeed public money and that Arpaio has misused them, Arpaio has told reporters that the auditor general has misinterpreted the word "enhancement."
Because a county sheriff is primarily a jailer, Arpaio claims that just about anything he does could be construed as a benefit to his jails. For instance, he justifies the payments to Newscount, Inc., for videotapes of his television appearances as some kind of training exercise for his deputies and detention officers.
Recently, however, the Sheriff's Office let New Times see a catalogue of the tapes in Arpaio's collection. Many of the segments were the sheriff's appearances at parades or at public relations stunts.
And all of them were stored at the Sheriff's Office, not at substations or jails where they might be used for "training purposes."
Arpaio says he buys the tapes so his deputies will know what the department is doing. But it's not the department that Newscount is instructed to record. Arpaio has admitted to New Times that there's only one criterion that Newscount uses to decide what to tape for the department: "When I talk," the sheriff says.
So while a burgeoning library of his on-camera utterances grows steadily and is catalogued by his staff, Arpaio continues to insist that the public pays for videos used in fighting crime.
Another matter could prove to be a real problem for him: whether he used JEF money to bypass state procurement codes.
In 1994, Arpaio sued the Board of Supervisors over its ability to set his budget. The lawsuit was widely regarded as little more than a constitutionalist stunt, but Arpaio vowed that he was serious and also promised not to use public funds to pay his attorney's fees.
However, New Times obtained a letter from Arpaio to a state Department of Corrections official which showed that two months before he made that promise, the sheriff had discreetly asked whether DOC would complain if he dipped into JEF. (DOC has no legal control over the money but was the only agency overseeing Arpaio's use of it--something that the auditor general concluded has to change.)
Despite his promise not to use public money, the sheriff did just that, paying his attorney in four checks drawn on the JEF fund.
Arpaio may have broken several laws governing public contracts in the process.
Arizona laws spell out clearly the process that public officials must follow in using public money to hire private attorneys. When Arpaio paid his attorney, however, he failed to follow these laws. The sheriff insists that he got County Attorney Romley's permission to hire a private attorney, but he never went through the approval process to hire a private attorney with public funds.
That could make him liable for the $39,350 he paid attorney Robert Yen, plus a 20 percent penalty and legal fees.
Arpaio doled out the money to Yen in four payments, each between $9,500 and $9,950. If a prosecutor could prove that Arpaio intentionally made payments of less than $10,000 to purposely bypass procurement laws, the sheriff could face prison time.
When New Times first reported the payments to Yen, special assistant county attorney Barnett Lotstein claimed that his boss, Richard Romley, was looking into the allegations but wanted to wait until the auditor general completed its investigation first.
Now that the auditor general has verified the misuses, prosecutors still appear unexcited about the prospect of going after Arpaio.
Romley's spokesman Bill FitzGerald says that the county attorney probably wouldn't handle a criminal prosecution of the sheriff because of a conflict of interest. On the other hand, he says it's likely that a civil action--a suit to force Arpaio to pay back the money he misspent--would, if called for, be handled by Romley's office. Any criminal procedure would be handled by the state attorney general, FitzGerald suggests.
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But Attorney General Grant Woods hasn't seen a copy of the auditor general's report yet, says his spokeswoman Karie Dozer. And she's unsure that Woods would be interested in taking on "America's Toughest Sheriff."
"Wouldn't Rick Romley handle that?" she asks.
New Times wondered if jurisdictional confusion was really that complicated--or more likely a sign of trepidation. So calls were placed to other county attorneys for clarification.
Prosecutors in other counties say that civil suits to recover state money would be handled by the attorney general, but that either Romley or Woods could prosecute a criminal case.
Coconino County Attorney Terry Hance says he's not surprised Romley and Woods aren't rushing to file civil or criminal charges against the sheriff. "I'm sure they don't want to fly in the face of Sheriff Joe hastily," he says.