Stephen Lemons Column

The $50 Million Sheriff

One of the difficulties in holding Sheriff Joe accountable for the costs of his misdeeds in office has been that whenever someone dies in the MCSO’s jails because of brutality or indifference to medical issues, the tab usually is covered by a form of self-insurance called the risk-management trust fund.

Same goes for settlements and awards that result from lawsuits brought by victims of harassment, wrongful arrest, and unlawful imprisonment.

So whenever Arpaio goes on a tear, abusing his power by retaliating against enemies or anyone who stands in his way, risk management’s pool of cash steps in to compensate those targeted and pay the legal bill. 

Most of risk management’s money comes from each county department’s budget.

The Sheriff’s Office always has vastly more claims than other departments, but paying them off doesn’t affect the general fund immediately, so John Q. Public is not hit directly in the wallet.

I should note that, generally, the county has a $5 million deductible per incident on the kind of risk-management cases that involve the MCSO. Over $5 million, additional insurance kicks in.

The risk-management pool is still taxpayer money, but Arpaio long has treated it as his personal cash cow.

Now along comes the seven-year-old civil rights case Melendres v. Arpaio and a similar lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012, U.S. v. Maricopa County.

These cases are not covered by risk management’s otherwise generous umbrella because the plaintiffs are not seeking damages. Rather, the intent of these lawsuits is to alter the policies and actions of the MCSO.

The cost of such lawsuits are borne by the county’s general fund. Any money spent on legal fees and complying with court orders comes directly out of the county’s purse.
Recently, the county Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a $2.2 billion budget for FY 2016, which begins on July 1.
That budget plan allocates $23.8 million for costs associated with complying with the federal court’s orders in Melendres.

Federal Judge G. Murray Snow ruled against Arpaio in 2013, finding the Sheriff’s Office guilty of widespread racial profiling against Hispanics.

Snow subsequently ordered a series of reforms for the office, appointing a monitor to oversee it. The judge’s rulings later were upheld by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

According to a slideshow presentation by budget officials to the supervisors just before the board’s May 18 vote, the county spent $3.7 million in 2014 on Melendres compliance and anticipates spending $17 million in FY 2015 by the time the county’s fiscal year ends in about a month.

Which means, unless the current numbers are revised, the FY 2016 budget will bring the county to a total of $44.5 million allocated for Melendres.

The budget presentation notes that these numbers do not include legal costs.

But legal costs in non-risk-management cases are taken straight out of the general fund, just not under a line item that would have put Arpaio over $50 million during this presentation.

I reported in April that legal costs in Melendres and in U.S. v. Maricopa County were up to a total of $14.2 million, of which about $6.8 million was from attorneys’ billings in Melendres.

Therefore, on Melendres alone, Maricopa County will have spent at least $51.3 million by June 30, 2016.

And guess what: It’s gonna get worse. A lot worse.

Under the heading “Major Budget Challenges,” the bean counters’ slideshow reads, “Melendres cost increases are difficult to fund or predict.”

Melendres alone will have cost the county's general fund at least $51.3 million by June 30, 2016.

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They are particularly difficult to fund or predict when Arpaio and his upper echelon have spent so much of the past year and a half defying Judge Snow.

Indeed, as you well know, Arpaio and Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan have admitted to civil contempt of Snow’s court and are part of an ongoing bench trial that will determine whether they or any of their co-defendants — three current and former MCSO honchos — will face criminal contempt proceedings before another judge.

During a four-day hearing in April, which will continue for at least two weeks in June, the plaintiffs presented plenty of evidence to show that Arpaio and Sheridan’s contempt of court was willful and, thus, criminal.

The county says it is not picking up the tab for any criminal defense lawyers for Arpaio, Sheridan, and the rest.

But the county continues to pick up the tab for the civil defense attorneys for the county and the MCSO.
Moreover, because the plaintiffs won in 2013 and now are following Snow’s orders for discovery in the contempt case, the county will be on the hook for any attorney fees for the plaintiffs.

Already the ACLU and Covington and Burling, which have partnered on Melendres, have been awarded $4.5 million in legal fees by the court. (That amount was included in my $6.8 million figure above.)

Arpaio’s contempt of Snow also has caused a lot more work for the monitor.

Including the current allocation, the monitor’s team will have cost the county more than $6.5 million by the end of FY 2016.

More work for the monitor means more money siphoned from the county’s well.

In other words, Arpaio’s contempt of the court has become a bottomless pit down which the county is dumping loads of moolah.

For instance, as part of a proposed settlement on the contempt issue, both Sheridan and Arpaio offered to have the county set up a taxpayer-funded account of $350,000 to compensate those illegally detained by the MCSO because Arpaio ignored a 2011 order from Snow to cease enforcing federal civil immigration law.

No telling how that fund would metastasize, if approved, because the total number of victims is not yet determined.

As a result of the contempt hearings, my previous columns on the MCSO’s inappropriate investigation of Judge Snow’s wife, and on the MCSO’s conspiratorial snipe hunt employing Seattle computer guy Dennis Montgomery have been confirmed as accurate.

Imagine Arpaio as a giant hedgehog with a vacuum cleaner for a snout, hoovering up endless piles of cash.

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To this point, Snow stated during a recent status hearing that documents unearthed by the monitor revealed “an attempt to construct a conspiracy involving this court” and various other entities and individuals, including the U.S. Department of Justice, and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, among others.

My sources suggest that the total cost of the Montgomery affair could end up being as much of $1 million, paid for with RICO funds.

Both Arpaio and Sheridan testified in April that the Seattle operation did not involve an investigation of a conspiracy theory involving Snow.

But at the recent status hearing, Snow said documents confiscated by the monitor suggested that “previous testimony offered in this matter may have been untruthful.”

This is an allusion to possible perjury by Arpaio and Sheridan. But Snow also bashed the MCSO’s misplaced priorities.
He stated:

“The Court wonders why, when the MCSO should have been spending [its] time, money, and resources in implementing [the court’s] order, [it was] funding a confidential informant as well as three MCSO deputies or posse members to be in Seattle, Washington . . . attempting construct some bogus conspiracy theory to discredit this Court.”

The RICO funds used to pay for the Seattle operation may be “funny money” to the general public, but the fallout from Arpaio’s thumbing his nose at the law takes a bite out of the county’s overall budget.

In fact, the 1 percent increase in the county’s adopted budget this year over last year’s equals $23 million, a little less than the $23.8 million Melendres will cost us this year.

Imagine Arpaio as a giant hedgehog with a vacuum cleaner for a snout, hoovering up endless piles of cash.

Then ask yourself if you think this critter deserves your vote in 2016, when he runs again.

E-mail [email protected].
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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons