Sheriff Joe's Real Estate Game

How's this for a get-rich scheme?

You get elected to public office, say, sheriff.

You start scowling like John Wayne and jam the jails full. You put the cons in stripes and house them in surplus Army tents, where four guards oversee 1,800 inmates.

Your detention officers beat up prisoners, while feeding them food unfit for a dog. A paranoid public afraid of crime is grateful because it naively believes your abusive policies will scare people from committing that next robbery and shooting.

Who cares if this is all baloney?

You drum up a few death threats along the way, because that generates free publicity chronicling what a bad-ass you are.

Who cares if innocent people go to jail?

The voters love it. Even as your office is besieged by tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits stemming from beatings and deaths in your Mother of All Dungeons.

The dead guys were druggies anyway, your public relations machine claims. And, hey, that's what the county's insurance policy is for -- settling claims of distraught survivors.

What matters most is that your image as "toughest sheriff in America" has made you into a valuable commodity.

And that image is worth a lot.

Now you're making bank. Giving speeches. Writing books. Selling movie rights. Getting free trips to posh resorts scattered across the country. Hawking novelties like bobblehead dolls, and pink underwear that you autograph personally.


Suddenly, a lot of money starts rolling through the sheriff's office doors. Bags full of cash land on your chief deputy's desk. No one's keeping track.

Any time county auditors come over snooping inside your operation, you chase them off and refuse to provide access to the books. No one's going to get an unfettered look at the financial operations of your $140 million-a-year empire as long as you're in charge.

Everything I have written so far about Arpaio's 12-year run as the Maricopa County sheriff has been documented in countless stories in this newspaper.

Which is why I'm very interested in old man Joe's extensive real estate holdings. Especially after I discovered he's got $690,000 in cold, hard cash invested in two small commercial properties in Scottsdale and Fountain Hills.

The total amount of cash slippery Joe has stashed into at least six other real estate investments may be much more than this. How much more, I don't know. That's because the 72-year-old has taken unusual steps to make sure the public can't find out the amount of cash he's stashed into Maricopa County real estate.

Rather than disclosing details of his real estate investments -- as the rest of us who might dabble in dirt must do -- Arpaio got his records purged from the Maricopa County Recorder's Office. The redacted records include such key information as deeds, mortgages, affidavits of value and conveyances of title.

Everything needed to determine if a deal is done fair and square.

You know, like what's the sales price? Is there a mortgage? What are the terms? The county keeps such records for a reason: It's hoped that full disclosure will keep the marketplace honest.

All of these records are normally available for public inspection. But not Arpaio's.

And neither are the real estate records for his top deputy, the twice-bankrupt, double-dipping David Hendershott, paid a $131,189 salary plus another $51,000 in annual pension money (he retired from the sheriff's office and was rehired as chief deputy by Arpaio). Hendershott enjoys his evenings in an upscale neighborhood of $400,000 homes in Peoria. How much did Hendershott pay for his nice pad at 24232 North 80th Lane? Did he pay cash? Can't tell, because Hendershott's real estate records also are sealed.

Arpaio says he's taking advantage of a law that allows cops, judges, prosecutors and public defenders to petition the Maricopa County Superior Court to issue an order that keeps their home addresses and telephone numbers out of records filed with county offices, including those of the recorder, treasurer and assessor.

Arpaio obtained such an order in July 2001. But rather than simply blocking out his home address on real estate records, all of the information has been removed, making it impossible to determine details of Arpaio's commercial and residential real estate holdings.

The sheriff says he got the records zapped because he was fearful that someone might be crouched behind the bushes near his home. "It's because of all the death threats," Arpaio told me in an interview last month inside the county jail. He later admitted that he was never "in that much danger" from any of the threats.

Why? We all know that the death threats are more grist for his publicity mill rather than any serious attempt on Joe's head. And now we know that the flimsy, and sometimes fabricated, death threats ("In the Crosshairs," June 24) are used as a convenient excuse to have Arpaio's real estate investments sealed from public inspection.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty