Sheriff Joe wants to read Phil Gordons e-mail
When Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon spoke out against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, he had to know that retaliation would be swift.
After all, past critics of the sheriff's office have been investigated, smeared, even jailed.
It didn't take Gordon long to join the list.
On April 24, four weeks after Gordon's widely publicized denunciation of the sheriff at a César Chávez luncheon, sheriff's deputies fired off a public-records request seeking the mayor's e-mails, cell phone records, and meeting calendar.
The letter also demands e-mail correspondence for Police Chief Jack Harris, City Manager Frank Fairbanks, and all of Gordon's administrative staff. In all, the sheriff's investigators are seeking every single e-mail written by more than a dozen Phoenix staffers, from November to the date of the sheriff's demand.
But get this.
The Sheriff's Office claims this isn't about the mayor, or the city of Phoenix. No, it's about the sheriff's own agency — Arpaio supposedly needs voluminous information about Gordon & Co. in order to investigate his own deputies for racial profiling.
Arpaio began sponsoring "crime suppression sweeps" earlier this year, bringing hundreds of deputies and volunteer posse members to heavily Hispanic areas. Residents were pulled over for minor traffic offenses and questioned about their immigration status.
Gordon decried the practice in a series of high-profile speeches, beginning with the Chavez lunch in March. "The posse didn't lock up murderers," Gordon noted at the luncheon, correctly. "They locked up people with broken tail lights." He has since asked the Department of Justice to investigate the department.
But the department claims it's ready to investigate itself. Naturally, its top resources won't be its own records or its deputies — no, it needs Gordon's e-mails, phone records, and calendar information.
"[M]embers of the City of Phoenix Government alleged that racial profiling occurred by personnel from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office," wrote Deputy Travis Anglin of the sheriff's Internal Affairs Division, in a letter obtained by New Times. "Based on this information, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has initiated an internal investigation."
Then Anglin claimed that the mayor's e-mail and phone records were needed to "further" the investigation.
It's about the most disingenuous explanation I've ever heard, and that's saying something. Sure, Anglin did throw in two lines near the end of his four-page letter asking for "any complaints or reports" that the mayor received about the Sheriff's Office. But even that strikes me as an attempt to track down the sheriff's critics — not get to the bottom of any profiling allegations.
There is absolutely no way the Sheriff's Office needs the mayor's complete e-mail correspondence to figure out whether the sheriff is targeting Mexicans. And there's no reason Anglin would need to look at the mayor's calendar or his cell phone records, other than harassment, intimidation — or pure nosiness. Same with Fairbanks; same with Police Chief Harris.
Through his spokesman, Gordon declined comment. Toni Maccarone, a spokeswoman for the city, said that Phoenix intends to comply with the request. The Sheriff's Office did not respond to a request seeking comment.
Recent history shows that such requests have become one of the sheriff's favorite tricks of the trade.
Last fall, Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas were battling the judiciary over bail for illegal immigrants. Thomas and Arpaio argued that the judges were letting potential murderers walk free — and Thomas' former boss, Dennis Wilenchik, went to court on the county attorney's behalf to argue that the entire roster of Maricopa County judges had to recuse themselves from cases involving illegal immigrants — as if that was ever going to happen.
Have no doubt about it: This was a public relations war. And in December, Arpaio's press aide, Captain Paul Chagolla, made it clear just how far the sheriff was willing to go. He fired off a public-records request to Court Administrator Marcus Reinkensmeyer, demanding all his e-mail correspondence, every e-mail sent or received by Reinkensmeyer's aides, and all letters and memos that have passed through the court administrator's office, too.
We may never know exactly what they were looking for, other than dirt. Reinkensmeyer responded that filling the request would require his staff to review a staggering 16,000 e-mails. He asked Chagolla to narrow the request. Chagolla refuses to do so; the matter appears to be at an impasse.
Also last year, Arpaio and Thomas were investigating Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. At a press conference, the twosome alleged Goddard may have gone soft when prosecuting the state's former treasurer, in exchange for a hefty civil fee paid to state coffers.
But that may not have been the point. Last year, Arpaio's office put in six public-records requests to Goddard's office seeking hundreds of pages of documents — many of them the same records they'd previously received from Goddard via subpoena.
Subpoenaed records, no matter how embarrassing, are sealed. But documents obtained under the public-records law can be released to the press. The Sheriff's Office obviously hoped to embarrass Goddard, even if they didn't have enough to indict him.
Which brings us to Gordon.
A busy and ambitious politician, Gordon separated from his wife in January. He's also the subject of a recall effort led by the sheriff's supporters.
Let's say the sheriff gets the records — do you think there's something in there that might prove a little embarrassing, even if it has nothing to do with racial profiling? Maybe the mayor secretly has a foul mouth. Maybe he had a meeting with a developer hated by local residents, and soon thereafter, the developer got a sweet deal.
Who knows? There's always something, and Arpaio has proved himself willing to do anything to get even with an enemy.
Unfortunately for the sheriff, Gordon doesn't have a city-issued cell phone. And the city of Phoenix has a longstanding policy of deleting e-mail every 30 days.
Still, I can just imagine the sheriff salivating at the possibilities.
Sheriff Arpaio has a history of harassing "dime-droppers" within the Sheriff's Office and penalizing critics outside of it. The guy behind a prominent anti-Arpaio Web site found his trash rifled through and a wiretap on his phone. An actor who dared to pose as an Arpaio-like character for a pro-gambling initiative was arrested for — get this — "impersonating a police officer." Even the ACLU's legal director was booked into the county jail after attempting to monitor sheriff's deputies last year. (See "Enemies List," November 29, 2007.)
The sheriff's Internal Affairs Division, the department demanding Gordon's e-mail, is a frequent tool for Arpaio's revenge.
Arpaio himself used to refer to the bureau as "Internal Security," according to the deposition of one former deputy. I don't think it was an innocent slip. Rather than serving as an independent arm to "police the police," as in many departments, Internal Affairs at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office appears to take direction from the top.
When, for example, the bureau was investigating the very real question of whether Arpaio had ordered his enemies to be tailed, the sheriff's top brass limited the scope so that Arpaio couldn't be questioned on that subject. (That detail comes from court filings by Phoenix attorney Joel Robbins, who's handled numerous suits against the sheriff, including one from Dan Saban, the sheriff's once and future opponent and the victim of a particularly ugly smear.) At other times, Internal Affairs eagerly pursued deputies whose only crime was questioning Arpaio's orders.
Indeed, it's worth noting that the Internal Affairs deputy who sent the request to Phoenix last month, Travis Anglin, is the same guy who worked on the investigation into a possibly purloined sheriff's decal in the 2005 election. That investigation, first reported in "Enemies List," ended with the seizure of four computers belonging to a graphic artist who worked for Democratic candidates — just days before the election.
Does that sound like a legitimate Internal Affairs investigation to you?
The sheriff's attempt to use the public-records law for nefarious purposes is especially ironic because his office is so notorious for failing to follow that very law. Just last week, Maricopa County was forced to cut a check to the West Valley View for $38,000 because the Sheriff's Office refused for years to put the scrappy newspaper on its e-mail list for press releases. Press releases! A judge ruled that was wrong. Duh. Now, we the taxpayers get stuck with the bill for the sheriff's recalcitrance.
Closer to home, the appeals court ruled earlier this year that the sheriff had wrongly denied New Times public records in eight different instances. It's hard to screw up that badly without trying.
Back in March, I got a tip alleging that an inmate had died under curious circumstances at the Lower Buckeye Jail. I knew the month, but not the exact date — which ought to be enough in any normal universe. How many deaths can there be at the jail in a single month?
But when I put in a public-records request asking for information about any deaths at the jail in question for a one-month period, Sheriff's Captain Paul Chagolla read me the riot act.
"You will not play the typical New Times-John Dougherty strategy with the Sheriff's Office, Ms. Fenske," he wrote in an e-mail to me, referring to a former colleague who'd written numerous pieces critical of the sheriff's office. "These 'alleged deaths' so vaguely listed by you smells of a fishing expedition."
When I pressed him for the documents, Captain Chagolla only got nastier. He wrote that I had "already shown the ability to lie," refused to give me specifics about my "alleged lying," and scolded me for being coy. Allegedly.
All in a day's work for a reporter, I guess. If I had ever lied to Chagolla, I might have felt guilty, but my conscience was clean. I don't even know the guy.
The funny part is that when I eventually got the records, there was nothing to them. The death was of natural causes, if a life of using crystal meth could ever be described as natural. I never wrote a story.
Yet I couldn't help thinking of the exchange when I saw the sheriff's request for information about Gordon.
Seeking information about any deaths at a particular jail in a single month is a fishing expedition, but seeking tens of thousands of e-mails over a six-month period is fair game?
These guys are brazen. And the only thing that makes it okay is that at least Mayor Gordon knew what he was getting into.
In his state of the city address May 16, Gordon referenced the sheriff's retaliatory nature.
"Will you pay a price for speaking out?" he asked. "Yeah, you might. We only need to look toward the deputies who have been forced to resign, the publishers who have been jailed, or the Mesa, Phoenix and West Valley chiefs who — along with elected officials like Rick Romley and Terry Goddard — have been targeted by [Arpaio's] Selective Political Enforcement Unit."
Gordon knew how the sheriff played the game, and yet he spoke out anyway. That's courage.
We can only hope he was really, really careful with his city e-mail account. Otherwise, I'm betting, we're all going to hear about it.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.