Joe Arpaio became Maricopa County sheriff in 1992 by taking advantage of dissatisfaction over Tom Agnos. The former sheriff had botched a murder investigation, and paid out $4 million in settlements to wrongly arrested suspects.
Last week, it was Arpaio who found himself paying big bucks to settle a botched case.
More than two years after inmate Scott Norberg died as detention officers held him in a restraint chair, Norberg's family accepted an $8.25 million settlement--twice what Agnos had been forced to pay--from the county and the sheriff's office.
It's one of the largest settlements involving taxpayer money in Arizona history. Government settlements paid in the past five years pale in comparison. The state paid $3.5 million in a breach of contract lawsuit with University of Arizona physicians. The City of Phoenix settled the Edward Mallet wrongful death suit for $5.1 million. Maricopa County, meanwhile, has paid a total of $14.7 million in five years in thousands of lawsuits against all of its divisions.
Insurance companies will bear the brunt of the Norberg settlement. Under a county insurance policy, taxpayers pay only the first $1 million in the case; that's already been eaten up by attorneys' costs in the Norberg case. County financial officer Tom Manos says several firms had reinsured the policy, and no single company will have to absorb the hit. Because of that, he says, he doesn't expect the county's premiums to increase significantly.
But Arpaio faces more possible paydays as other lawsuits approach trial. Attorney Joel Robbins represents Richard Post, the paraplegic who was pulled out of his wheelchair and cinched violently into a restraint chair, causing permanent damage to Post's neck and shoulders.
Robbins notes that the Norbergs had much to overcome in their case: Scott Norberg's problems with drugs were well documented, and he had assaulted a Mesa police officer the day of his arrest. By contrast, Post had no criminal record, and was arrested for disturbing the peace in an Irish pub on St. Patrick's Day, 1996. The owner told Phoenix police that he was offended that Post had called him an "Englishman."
"I don't think the jury's going to think that the guards were doing anything but punishing Richard for overflowing a toilet," Robbins says. "He's effectively gone from a paraplegic to a quadriplegic."
Post is determined that his case be heard in court, which may happen as soon as June.
In the meantime, another case is closer to trial. Timothy Griffin's lawsuit has withstood several attempts by the county to have it dismissed, and, unless the county offers to settle, it is set for trial April 5. Griffin spent only a few days in jail in 1996 for driving with a suspended license, but he claims that jailers ignored his repeated warnings about his medical condition. Griffin says he was forced to eat rancid food and then he was misdiagnosed by a physician's assistant. He was rushed to the Maricopa Medical Center for surgery for a perforated ulcer. He's endured four more surgeries since, and is now disabled.
Griffin's attorneys Maria Speth and Jace McKeighan say witnesses will attest to jail mistreatment and neglect.
Sheriff's office spokeswoman Lisa Allen says Arpaio won't discuss the Norberg settlement until it has been finalized. "We certainly wouldn't want to say anything that would make somebody angry, that would encourage them to change the amount," she says. The sheriff issued a written statement last week, saying that the county did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement agreement.
Scott's father, Jaron Norberg, says he winced at that contention. The county "doesn't pay out $8 million, hard-nosed insurance people don't pay out that kind of money, unless somebody did something horribly wrong," he says.
Paul Holloway, the county's attorney, says the public shouldn't read anything into the large dollar amount. "There are lots of reasons why insurance companies settle cases. Timing is important--where you are in the litigation, where you're going to go, what work is ahead of you," he says.
If that's the case, the timing of the settlement may have been opportune for the county. In recent months, the case seemed to be going badly for Arpaio, with revelations about mishandling of evidence and county duplicity.
This week, Mike Manning, the Norberg family's attorney, gave New Times a videotape the county finally gave him last month. In it, Norberg is shown hours before his death, lethargic and confused, being dragged by detention officers. Manning says the tape suggests Norberg was dehydrated and ill, not drug-crazed as the county claims. (For an excerpt of the video, see www.phoenixnewtimes.com)
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Jaron Norberg says he's disappointed such evidence won't be presented to a jury in a trial. But he and his wife Deena agreed to the settlement, he says, out of consideration for Scott's sons. "We didn't want them to have to see all the lying and the deceit and the killing of their father. That wouldn't have done them any good. That wouldn't have done me any good either, come to think of it," he says.
Norberg says he hopes the settlement will have some effect on the public perception of Arpaio.
"For the top law-enforcement officer of your county to play fast and loose with the truth--I can't believe that's the kind of law-enforcement concept we want in our county," Norberg says. "There's a way to be tough on crime and humane at the same time."
Contact Tony Ortega at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org