Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed Toughest Sheriff in America, is about to find out if he's tough enough to weather a criminal charge and still win re-election.
A misdemeanor charge of contempt appears inevitable after today's hearing in federal court in Phoenix, when officials from the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office moved forward with the charge.
Arpaio wasn't charged on Tuesday, but apparently will be tomorrow. Arizona U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton asked prosecutors to write up a statement of cause and present it to her on Wednesday, indicating that she would sign it.
Arpaio, who is 84, could be sentenced to up to six months in jail if convicted.
Don't expect justice to be swift: Arpaio has asked for a jury trial, which could take months to set up.
But the popular and controversial sheriff, who is running for his seventh four-year term, could be in trouble at the polls based on the allegation alone. On November 8, Arpaio will face off against retired Phoenix police officer Paul Penzone, a Democrat.
Although U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow also referred Arpaio's chief deputy Jerry Sheridan, Captain Steve Bailey, and attorney Michelle Iafrate for potential contempt charges in August, the U.S. Attorney's Office has only taken aim at the sheriff — so far.
In May, Snow declared that Arpaio and Sheridan were guilty of civil contempt of his court, saying the men had deliberately and willfully defied his orders in the landmark civil-rights case Melendres v. Arpaio. That case ended with Snow finding that Arpaio and the MCSO were guilty of systemic discrimination against Latinos. The judge appointed a federal monitor to oversee Arpaio's office.
The sheriff denies that he intentionally violated Snow's orders, but five-term Republican County Supervisor Andy Kunasek thinks that's a lie.
"I honestly believe that the sheriff did understand the judge’s orders to stop doing what he was doing and made a conscious decision to ignore it, and to actually, unbelievably, use that judge's orders as a fundraising tool," Kunasek told Channel 12 News (KPNX-TV) last week.
Kunasek said that as a fiscal conservative, there's no way he'll vote for Arpaio this year. The sheriff's policies toward immigrants and subsequent flouting of Snow's orders in the Melendres case cost the county at least $50 million, he said. The Associated Press has predicted the costs will ultimately amount to $70 million.
Kunasek understands the corruption and abuse in Arpaio's office like few others. Back in 2010, Arpaio launched a bogus criminal investigation of Kunasek that — according to a well-respected deputy county attorney — was intended to destabilize the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and prevent it from fighting or underfunding the sheriff's office.
Ultimately, the county was forced to pay Kunasek $123,000 to cover his legal fees in the case.
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"I think there's been an extreme level of deceit and dishonesty," Kunasek told Channel 12's Joe Dana.
Cecilia Wang of the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the Melendres case against Arpaio and his agency, said in a statement that holding the sheriff accountable for his contempt of court constitutes "justice."
"Sheriff Arpaio's conduct violating court orders was willful and deliberate and therefore criminal in nature," Wang said.
Mel McDonald, Arpaio's lawyer and a former Arizona U.S. Attorney General, told the press on Tuesday that "there was never any criminal contempt and we’re going to vehemently fight that."