By Ray Stern
How close did I come to getting arrested by Maricopa County sheriff's deputies today? As Maxwell Smart would say, "Missed it by that much."
The problem: I had the nerve to want to look at the same public records that sheriff's deputies were scouring at the City of Phoenix public records counter.
First, a little background.
You'll recall that Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon has been putting a lot of political heat on Sheriff Joe Arpaio in recent months, ripping Arpaio for conducting "crime-supression sweeps" that are really intended to find illegal immigrants. At a luncheon in March to honor Cesar Chavez, Gordon said the Sheriff's Office was doing little more than locking up "brown people with broken tail lights." He reiterated the theme in a May 2008 Latino Perspectives Magazine article, writing that Arpaio has "created a 'Sanctuary County for Felons' with his reckless priorities–that target brown skin and cracked tail lights– instead of killers and drug dealers."
Pretty harsh words, and when the sheriff gets attacked, he bites back. In late April, the Sheriff's Office put in a public records request for every e-mail obtained or received from the mayor and a bunch of his staff members, including City Manager Frank Fairbanks. Arpaio also wants to see the mayor's meeting calendar and cell phone records. As New Times columnist Sarah Fenske wrote last month, the request appears to be a fishing expedition for any records that could harm the mayor politically.
It should go without saying that this request is another example of how Arpaio abuses the police powers of his office to try to intimidate and quiet his critics.
But it's also proving that Arpaio and his deputies are hypocrites, for two reasons:
Because the sheriff's public information officials often complain when the news media attempts the same kind of fishing expedition that his office is now conducting. And because the MCSO is taking advantage of a liberal public-records policy at the City of Phoenix that allows the public to scan in or photograph public records for free to avoid copying fees.
As I've written in a previous article, the Sheriff's Office won't let anyone to scan or photograph public records it releases, instead demanding a whopping 50 cents a page for copies. As my article notes, after I argued with the sheriff's publicly funded private lawyer about this issue in October, the Sheriff's Office cited me for disorderly conduct. I pleaded not guilty and am continuing to fight the charge.
Today, I got wind that sheriff's deputies were at the City of Phoenix building at 200 West Washington scanning public records into a machine they'd brought with them. When I arrived at the 15th-floor records counter about 3 p.m., two deputies were sitting near their scanner, waiting for the device to process a stack of papers. A large file box was next to the scanner, full of thousands of pages of documents.
I strolled up to the deputies, identified myself, and asked who they were. They refused to reveal their names, but that's them in the picture at the top of this article. I told the pair I was interested in seeing what documents the city had released to them, and asked them if it was all right if I took a peek at some of the documents in the box that they weren't using at the time. They said no way, then turned over some of the public records that had been face-up so I couldn't see them.
I stated that I had the right to simply reach into the box and look at the records, but the deputy in the blue shirt said he "wouldn't advise that." Which I took to mean, by the words and his tone, that he'd arrest me.
I called the mayor's office and told Scott Phelps, Gordon's spokesman, what was happening. And a few minutes later, City Attorney Gary Verburg showed up. In no uncertain terms, Verburg told the deputies I had the right to look at the public records.
Unfortunately, Verburg had to attend a City Council meeting and couldn't stick around. By then, brave blue-shirt had called for back-up.
In walked MCSO Captain Jim Miller and a couple of other deputies, including one of the sheriff's legion of highly paid flacks, Paul Chagolla. The deputies surrounded the scanner so I couldn't get near it to see what secrets they had obtained from the city.
Miller proved himself to be a real bully, practically begging me make a move that would allow him to arrest me. He accused me of wanting to take public records literally from his deputies' hands, warning me that such an action would certainly lead to arrest. 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!"
When I declined, he grinned smugly. "Wise man," he said.
Then, Chagolla took his turn. He wagged a finger in my face, threatening repeatedly to arrest me for interfering with the sheriff's "investigation" if I tried to look at the documents getting scanned, or those in the box next to the scanner. Telling him the city attorney said it was my right legally to look in the box didn't phase him. Chagolla warned that he intended to report my actions to the City of Phoenix prosecutor who is helping the Sheriff's Office ream me on the bogus disorderly conduct charge.
A Phoenix security officer showed up, as well as two or three Phoenix police officers, including one commander. Hoping to prevent the showdown from getting truly ugly, the Phoenix records clerks said I could begin looking at the boxes of documents the deputies had scanned already, and I agreed to do that.
In about an hour, I quickly flipped through a few thousand pages of copies. It was a big pile of nothing. Typical e-mails about immigration issues. Citizens e-mailing city staff members newspaper articles, sometimes railing against or lending support to the mayor's views. Boring internal memos. I went through the stacks pretty fast. It seems the Sheriff's Office is getting zilch in this publicly funded vendetta against Gordon for speaking his mind (not that this would stop Arpaio from trumping up something against Gordon. He's done it before. His minions have done it to me).
While I was perusing the documents, a city "conflict resolution manager" walked up and laid down an Arizona law book. She pointed to the section of public records law that essentially says anyone can look at any public record during business hours. And then City Attorney Verburg came back and told me and the deputies again that I had the right to look at any public record. Upon hearing that, the deputies warned me again that if I tried to look at the documents in the box next to the scanner, I'd be arrested.
Of course, by then it didn't matter, since I'd seen most of the documents they'd scanned in previously, and those in the box (as well as two or three other boxes of papers the deputies had yet to scan in) were likely just more of the same. In any case, it appeared there was nothing worth getting arrested over today. New Times will look at the rest of the records soon enough.
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"It's an unusual request," Verburg said later of Arpaio's public records search. "I don't think it will turn up anything."
Whether that prediction is accurate remains to be seen. But the city should've made the sheriff's request for records a much more difficult endeavor--by forcing Arpaio to play by his own rules. That is, forbid the deputies from using a scanner. Charge them 50 cents a page.
Heck, why not make the deputies review records in the city jail, using only a pencil and paper to take notes. (Arpaio has forced reporters he doesn't like, including me, to review records, using only a pencil and paper, inside one of his county gulags.)
That is, the city should fight back with the same intimidation tactics that Arpaio unleashes routinely on anybody who bucks him.