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Sheriff Joe’s goons bring new heights of absurdity to Phoenix City Hall

Your tax dollars at work: The Sheriff's Office on the job at Phoenix City Hall.
Ray Stern

 

I still don't know what the stupidest part was.

Was it the Maricopa County sheriff's officer waving a public record at a reporter, daring him to touch it — making it clear that he'd have the reporter arrested if he did?

Was it the sheriff's deputies using a portable scanner to photocopy records they'd requested from Phoenix city officials — even though they refuse to let people use scanners on their own records?

Or, was it the five goons from the Sheriff's Office — seriously, five extra guys, all on government time — who showed up to form a protective circle around two deputies while they did the scanning, just in case reporters should again come knocking?

Seriously, it was like an episode of Punk'd at Phoenix City Hall last week. Only there was no Ashton Kutcher jumping out to scream that the whole thing was staged for our laughter, no moment when the sheriff's officers admitted they were joking.

The lunacy was all too real.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio's officers really are that paranoid, that bullying, that hypocritical. And, worst of all: They really are that willing to waste our tax dollars on a political vendetta.

And that's not funny. In fact, it's appalling.


It was April when Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon first denounced Sheriff Arpaio. The occasion was a César Chávez Day luncheon; the mayor's words were a harsh rebuke of Arpaio's "crime sweeps," which feature deputies swarming Latino neighborhoods, pulling over brown-skinned drivers, and sending Mexican nationals off to be deported. Gordon called it racial profiling.

Which, of course, it is.

These days, now that a brave coalition of politicians and activists are standing shoulder-to-shoulder against Arpaio, it's easy to forget just how courageous Gordon's words were. Don't be mistaken: This was a big deal. People e-mailed Gordon after the luncheon to say they had tears in their eyes. A transcript of his speech was e-mailed from inbox to inbox.

Mainstream Democrats like Governor Janet Napolitano had always given Arpaio wide berth. It was considered political suicide to challenge the sheriff, no matter how senile you might privately consider him to be.

Gordon's brave stance changed that. Even Napolitano, the savviest of politicians, has decided to pick a fight with Arpaio, reneging on a grant she promised for his immigration sweeps. Arpaio was forced to admit he'd had to learn about the governor's decision by reading New Times — that's how irrelevant he suddenly appeared.

And Arpaio has never been one to suffer an insult without retaliation.

Four weeks after the Chávez Day speech, an officer in Arpaio's Internal Affairs unit put in a public-records request at Phoenix City Hall, demanding to see six months of Gordon's e-mail (See "Fishing Expedition," May 15). The sheriff also ordered Phoenix to release e-mails from City Manager Frank Fairbanks, Police Chief Jack Harris, and a half-dozen top staffers. Arpaio also wanted the mayor's cell phone records, but because the mayor doesn't have a city-issued cell phone, the sheriff was out of luck.

Supposedly, the sheriff needed the information to investigate his own employees for racial profiling — an excuse so laughable, it's hardly worth repeating.

He just wanted dirt. And the chance to intimidate a political enemy.

The great irony is that Arpaio was using Arizona's public-records law — a law that the courts have held that his own office has repeatedly flouted — to do it.

But that was only the beginning.

City spokeswoman Toni Maccarone tells me that it took city workers more than 221 hours to gather the sheriff's request. When completed, the records totaled a staggering 9,343 pages.

Since the city charges 19 cents per page, that would have meant a $1,775.17 bill.

The sheriff could hardly justify spending that much on a vendetta-driven fishing expedition at a time when his office is slashing expenses left and right. So Arpaio's guys did something that their own office bars reporters from doing: They brought a scanner to duplicate the records without cost.

Last October, New Times reporter Ray Stern attempted to use his digital camera to copy some records that he'd ordered from the Sheriff's Office. The sheriff's lawyer ordered Stern to put his camera away — scanners and photographs are verboten when the sheriff is running the show.

And when Stern argued with the lawyer enforcing the rule, the sheriff's brass saw that he was cited for "disorderly conduct." That's a first-degree misdemeanor.

The city of Phoenix has no policy against scanners or digital cameras; it's not like they were giving Arpaio's guy a deal. But still, the sheriff's hypocrisy in employing a method he stops others from using is too rich.

And it gets worse.

Remember my buddy Ray Stern? Well, he showed up at the Clerk's Office while the sheriff's deputies were scanning away — and, again, nearly was arrested for his trouble.

 

It turns out the sheriff doesn't think that public records should be . . . public. When Stern asked the officers if he could take a look at records they weren't scanning, they told him to back off. Never mind that they were supposedly on a "break" and that their request totaled five boxes of photocopies — surely, enough to go around.

Stern says the guys were openly confrontational. As he wrote on New Times' Valley Fever blog last week, Sheriff's Captain Jim Miller "proved himself to be a real bully, practically begging me to make a move that would allow him to arrest me . . . He picked up a couple of random folders sitting on the records counter and waved them in my face. 'Take these papers from my hand!' he snarled. 'Take these papers from my hand!'"

Real mature, dudes.

As Miller would later write in a memo to his boss, Chief Deputy David Hendershott, he was livid that Phoenix police refused to arrest the reporter. (You can read the whole thing here.)

"I was further infuriated that any member of the Phoenix Police Department would fail to come to the aid of another law enforcement officer while performing his duties," Miller wrote, "and then dare to threaten interference with a potential arrest . . . "

Later in the memo, Miller actually whined, "I felt by the end of the encounter that [the Phoenix police] were there to protect Stern. The most significant response by the Phoenix commander was to 'warn' me not to take action against Stern." Cry me a freakin' river.

But here's the really crazy part.

Miller didn't take the incident to mean that his guys were overreaching or that public records belong to the public.

Instead, he decided that New Times and the city of Phoenix must be in cahoots. He decided that Phoenix officials must have shared a "great deal of information" about the sheriff's request, that Phoenix police were "instructed not to interfere" with Stern's effort to "antagonize" them, and that City Attorney Gary Verburg "conspired in some way to partner with Stern."

How ludicrous.

To set the record straight: There is no conspiracy. You only have to read New Times' coverage of Phoenix City Hall to know that our relationship has frequently been tense — and always a bit testy.

Beyond that, I broke the story of the sheriff's silly records request more than a month ago. One of my sources, who has nothing to do with City Hall, heard that the sheriff had put in a public-records request for the mayor's e-mail and told me about it. Nosy reporter that I am, I immediately filed a public-records request for the public-records request. Naturally, Stern knew a "great deal of information" about the request — he'd read all about it in our paper!

And as for that "conspiracy" between the city attorney and New Times . . .

Stern met City Attorney Verburg for the very first time at the city clerk's office last Wednesday. Stern was getting interference from the sheriff's deputies, so he called the mayor's press secretary, Scott Phelps. Phelps asked Verburg to go to the clerk's office to straighten out the situation.

Stern and Verburg met for the first time while the sheriff's deputies were watching. And they had little reason to collaborate: Verburg's office is the one prosecuting Stern for that disorderly conduct charge.

Remember when Stern dared to argue that he ought to be allowed to record public records with his digital camera, and the sheriff ordered him to be charged? Citing a conflict of interest, County Attorney Andrew Thomas recused himself, so Verburg's office took the case.

They've refused to drop the charge. Stern could face up to six months in jail.

Some conspiracy, eh?


The stupidest thing about the sheriff's public-records request isn't the bullying at City Hall last week, or even the hypocrisy.

The stupidest thing is what's in the records. Nothing.

Oh, sure, there's stuff. Mayor Gordon got plenty of e-mail; so did City Manager Fairbanks and Police Chief Harris. But I went through the entire 9,343-page request and I can tell you, with absolute certainty, there is nothing of substance there.

No embarrassing revelations about Gordon's personal life. No evidence of a conspiracy between Gordon and Arpaio's opponents.

The only "scoop" in the entire set of records is the fact that former news babe Mary Jo West used the occasion of the Chávez Day speech to ask Gordon for a job. Seriously.

West, who famously handled communications for the Catholic diocese during the fallout from former Bishop O'Brien's hit-and-run, praised Gordon's "stance against Sheriff Arpaio's unprofessional actions," then casually mentioned that if Gordon's spokesman, Phelps, should ever retire, she's looking for work. "I am used to staying calm in the middle of controversy," she wrote.

 

Any time that's the best tidbit in 9,000-plus pages, you know you're in trouble. The rest of the records are just blather — thank-you notes from the activists and church-goers who hate Arpaio, rants on immigration from his most loyal supporters.

"I hope you and your wife get gang raped by your illegal Mexican freinds [sic]," wrote William L. Strop of Astor, Florida. "You need to move your shitty ass to Mexico and get the hell out of MY country and take your shitty family with you you cock sucker!"

"Sheriff Joe is trying to get these wetbacks out of here," wrote Jeff Fischer of Mesa. "Why don't you go to mexico and take these cockroaches with you!!!!!!!!"

Nice. That level of hatred may be beyond even Mary Jo West's formidable skill set.

The upshot: City Hall spent hundreds of hours tracking down these e-mails, killed numerous trees to print them, and deployed multiple lawyers to vet and redact them. Then Arpaio's goons sent over phalanxes of high-ranking officers on three different days to scan; now, surely, they're about to spend dozens of hours of printing and reading them all over again.

All for nothing.

Last week, I heard that this ordeal has Police Chief Jack Harris so disheartened that he actually gave up his e-mail address. Just try to send him an e-mail. City officials confirm that Harris had his address dismantled in the wake of Arpaio's request.

Harris wants to catch criminals, not screw around with his opponents or waste his time printing one e-mail after another for Joe Arpaio's pleasure.

He's a real law enforcement officer with real law enforcement priorities.

And after last week's hullabaloo at City Hall, the contrast between him and Arpaio's goons couldn't be clearer.


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