PUBLIC RECORDS PAYDAY
It's a unique day in the annals of New Times-MCSO relations when Sheriff Joe Arpaio cuts this paper a check. But that's what our geriatric top gendarme just did, to the tune of $40,000.
The check was actually for legal fees expended by New Times in the pursuit of public records requested by ex-New Times reporter John Dougherty in 2004. (And, technically, county Board of Supervisors chairman Don Stapley and clerk Fran McCarroll signed on Arpaio's behalf.)
Dougherty, now a candidate in the Democratic primary to determine a challenger for Republican U.S. Senator John McCain (assuming McCain gets past GOP rival J.D. Hayworth), left New Times in 2006.
But in 2004, he was hard on Joe's ancient heels and had submitted numerous requests to the MCSO seeking information about such matters as a jail death, jail canteen funds, and the MCSO's East Mesa facility (otherwise known as the "Mesa Hilton," for its use in housing such high-profile former offenders as Glen Campbell and the daughter of sports mogul Jerry Colangelo).
The MCSO's highly paid public relations unit, headed by Joe's top flack, Lisa Allen, and her Stepin Fetchit, the infamously aggro Lieutenant Paul Chagolla (who has since been named a deputy chief), stonewalled Dougherty's lawful inquiries.
No doubt they were annoyed by a scathing profile of Arpaio that Dougherty had just written. Arpaio actually sat for an interview for the story, but the results were hardly salutary for Joe, who was then facing a challenge in the GOP primary from former Mesa PD Commander Dan Saban, then a Republican.
Arpaio would go on to pull out a victory over Saban, getting 56 percent of the vote. At the time, Dougherty's piece hit the sheriff square in the jaw. And Dougherty was going back for second and third punches
In fact, in a separate investigation, he was also seeking records on Arpaio's land deals, the addresses for which had been blacked out on public records. The sheriff had sunk about $800,000 in cash into the purchases, a load of dough for a civil servant to be throwing around.
That inquiry would eventually spawn an MCSO investigation of New Times and Dougherty that led to the bogus 2007 arrests of the papers' founders, Village Voice Media Executive Editor Michael Lacey and CEO Jim Larkin, in a witch hunt that was dropped and repudiated by then-County Attorney Andrew Thomas less than 24 hours after they were collared.
But that was all yet to come. In 2004, Dougherty was dogging the MCSO, demanding the jail records. Days before the September 2004 primary, Dougherty ran into Lisa Allen at a downtown press event for Saban, which she evidently was monitoring for her boss.
Dougherty asked about the public records, and Allen told him that the MCSO didn't recognize New Times as a "legitimate newspaper."
When Dougherty told Allen that, under Arizona law, the MCSO had to comply, she shot back, "So sue us!"
Which shortly thereafter, New Times legal beagles Steve Suskin and Michael Meehan did, but not before Arpaio's goons got the opportunity to manhandle Dougherty. This occurred on the night of the primary at the Phoenix Civic Plaza ballroom, rented for the evening by the county elections department.
Arpaio was there, celebrating his win over Saban, and Dougherty approached him with his tape recorder at the ready, asking Joe when he planned to cough up the documents.
"Will you get rid of this guy?!" Arpaio snarled to his goon squad, whose members promptly bent Dougherty's arm behind his back and shuffled him to the door.
Outside the entrance, Dougherty immediately ran into Paul Chagolla.
"That was the first time I met him," recalled Dougherty when he came by New Times' offices for a photo shoot with an oversize replica of the $40K check. "So I go, 'You're Paul Chagolla? When are you gonna give us the records.' He turns around, and he claims that I brushed his shoulder with my tape recorder. And [the MCSO] opened a criminal investigation for assault based on that."
Though it was Dougherty who'd obviously been assaulted that night.
In any case, as you might expect, Chagolla's "investigation" came to nothing.
As for the public-records request, not long after New Times filed suit the MCSO finally began complying with the multiple requests. But because the MCSO's willful disregard of Arizona public-records law forced us to sue, New Times sought attorney fees related to the case.
The county's Superior Court ruled in the MCSO's favor in 2005. New Times appealed the decision. In 2008, a three-judge state appeals court — after receiving the lame, nonsensical excuses that Allen and Chagolla offered in depositions — found that the MCSO wrongfully denied New Times public records and remanded the case to Superior Court to determine the fees New Times had coming.
Fast-forward two years, and an evidentiary hearing on the matter was swiftly approaching. That's when New Times co-counsel Meehan gets a call from one of Arpaio's many lawyers, Michelle Iafrate, asking how much the paper would settle for.
Irony of ironies, Iafrate is the same lawyer who had a hissy fit that New Times reporter Ray Stern dared to take photos (which is absolutely legal) of some of the public documents he was examining at her offices in 2007. Iafrate whined to the MCSO, and Joe's thugs delivered a citation for disorderly conduct to Stern the same night that Lacey and Larkin were arrested.
The charges against Stern were ultimately dropped, natch. But why would Iafrate not keep fighting New Times' request for legal fees in the Dougherty matter?
Could it be a little thing called a federal grand jury? You know, the one that's currently investigating the MCSO and Joe on criminal abuse-of-power charges?
"From a guy [like Arpaio] that's never given us the time of day, why did they not want to have this hearing?" asked New Times lawyer Suskin. "Maybe because it was a hearing to make a judicial finding on whether or not they deal in bad faith with people. And maybe they didn't want to have that determination."
Especially not with that federal grand jury impaneled. Add to it the fact that MCSO attorneys are facing an oral argument later this month at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a lawsuit filed by New Times against the sheriff in the Lacey-Larkin arrests, and you can see why the MCSO just wanted to pay $40K to make this thing over the lawyer fees go away.
As with all settlements involving Arpaio — like the county's $43 million-plus in payouts over wrongful deaths and other malfeasance involving Joe's jails — taxpayers pick up the tab. Arpaio never has to dip into his own pocket.
Asked about the $40K check, New Times co-founder Michael Lacey noted the bigger picture.
"It's about a 1 percent down payment on what it's cost for us to get public records that ought to be available for free," he told me. "We've spent a ton of money in legal fees [over the years] trying to obtain public documents. In the case, for example, of elections we were covering, the records don't get released 'til years after the election occurs. And the people that suffered from that are the voters."
Still, never did a $40,000 check seem so sweet.
Hollywood actor Benjamin Bratt told me that he and his brother, director Peter Bratt, considered boycotting appearing in Arizona to promote their new film La Mission — they've denounced Sand Land's new "papers, please" legislation and the state's new ethnic-studies ban — but decided to come anyway.
"The unconstitutional law encourages racial profiling, endangers public safety, and betrays our most basic American values," the brothers, both sons of a Peruvian-born immigrant mother, stated about 1070 on their film's Facebook page. The movie opens Friday, June 11, at area theaters.
"We did consider a boycott," said Bratt when we spoke this week. "But, as artists, it's our responsibility on some level to give support where we can. And if the encouragement we're receiving on our Facebook page is any indication, 90 percent of the people writing in [agree]."
Bratt describes the film as "a cinematic love letter" to lowrider culture and the diverse San Francisco Mission District, where he and his brother grew up. The film follows Bratt's character, Che Rivera, a tough ex-con challenged emotionally by the homosexuality of his only son, a scholar heading for college at UCLA.
I don't have the space in this column to give the film all the props it deserves, but suffice it to say that La Mission beautifully evokes Latino culture, which despite its challenges and heartbreak, is shown to be centered on family, spirituality, cultural pride, and love.
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"All of us desire to have a sense of belonging and a sense of being needed," said Bratt, adding, "It doesn't matter if you're white or black or yellow or red or brown. If you see that up on the screen, you get that, yeah, we are all the same . . . The film demonstrates that to people who may not understand Latino culture at all."
Bratt, his brother, and comedian/talk-show host George Lopez, a pal of the Bratts' and a supporter of the film, will attend a Q&A session following La Mission's showing at the AMC Arizona Center at 7 p.m. along with United Farm Workers co-founder and legend Dolores Huerta. Their appearance at the AMC Arizona Center is for a fundraiser to aid such local Hispanic advocacy groups as Puente and Somos America.
The brothers Bratt will also appear for a Q&A following the 8:45 p.m. show at Harkins Arizona Mills. You can get all the details on my Feathered Bastard blog, plus read more of my interview with Bratt there.
I'm glad the Bratts will be here, because a boycott of Arizona doesn't have to mean boycotting those fighting the vicious, unprecedented hate directed at Hispanics in this state. And, perhaps, if some of those with ill will in their hearts see the movie, it will help put a human face on a now-stigmatized minority, and reveal that they are as "American" as it comes.