Does U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke Have the Stones to Take on Sheriff Joe?


CBS 5's recent special report on Sheriff Joe Arpaio's pattern of retaliation against anyone who criticizes or opposes his office put some serious wind into the sails of Joe foes. Though it was not so much the partial recounting of Joe's enemies list in the nearly 10-minute segment. (A full recounting would've required a mini-series.)

After all, the fact that Arpaio likes to investigate and arrest his critics — everyone from Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley to Village Voice Media Executive Editor Michael Lacey and VVM CEO Jim Larkin — is old chapeau to New Times readers.

As if to acknowledge this fact, CBS 5 producer Gilbert Zermeno and reporter Morgan Loew interviewed ex-New Times staffer John Dougherty about a 2004 run-in with Arpaio in which the sheriff and his goons claimed Dougherty threatened Arpaio with a "silver metallic object": A tape recorder.

What was new in the report was Zermeno and Loew's laying their evidence in front of former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, the no-nonsense, ex-Navy prosecutor and Republican who supposedly helped inspire Tom Cruise's strident character in A Few Good Men. Iglesias was also one of several U.S. Attorneys purged by the Bush administration in 2006 for refusing to seek political prosecutions.

In other words, his reputation is unquestioned, plus he has no beef with Sheriff Joe. That made his insistence that he would seek an indictment all the more tantalizing.

"I would go to a grand jury," said Iglesias. "I would work very closely with the [Justice Department's] civil rights criminal division in Washington, D.C. And, based on the information that I have, I would seek an indictment."

Iglesias stated that what he had reviewed of Joe's abuses reminded him more of "South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia," not the U.S. of A., where such skullduggery is "absolutely unacceptable." Something about Iglesias' old Dragnet-style buzz-cut and his Joe Friday "just-the-facts-ma'am" demeanor made his observations that much more credible.

Certainly, Iglesias has the freedom in his pronouncements of no longer being a U.S. Attorney. But he did back up his analysis by citing federal statutes that Arpaio and Co. may have violated: 18 USC 241 and 18 USC 242.

The first law sanctions those who conspire to "injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person" exercising his or her constitutional rights. The second makes it illegal to deprive someone of rights "under the color of law." That is, using the law to get back at your enemies, hiding behind a badge in the process.

You don't have to be a lawyer to reckon that Arpaio's gone after people "under the color of law."

So the big question becomes: Will anything be done about Arpaio's possible violations of federal law? Everyone knows the Department of Justice and the FBI are investigating Arpaio, but will new U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke do anything about Arizona's rogue sheriff?

History does not bode well. Burke has long been a confidant to erstwhile Governor Janet Napolitano. He served as her chief of staff while she occupied the Executive Tower's ninth floor, and he later followed her to Washington, D.C., where he served as senior adviser to the Department of Homeland Security Secretary.

According to Arizona Democratic Party insiders, to talk to Burke was like talking to Napolitano. A nod from him could grant you access. A murmur that the state's chief executive was too busy meant your cause was doomed.

It may be too much to expect action from the trusted adviser to a cautious, do-nothing Democrat who avoided conflict with Arpaio, much less any act of standing on principle. Napolitano has been looking away from Arpaio's misdeeds for practically her entire political career.

That's because the pair have been political allies. In 1997, Janet Reno's Justice Department sued Arpaio over the conditions in his jails. When a settlement was declared, Napolitano, then Arizona's U.S. Attorney (and itching to run for state attorney general), appeared at a joint press conference with Arpaio and provided cover for Maricopa County's top constable. She pooh-poohed the lawsuit as a "technicality" and "a lawyer's paper."

In 2002, as Napolitano was engaged in her first gubernatorial campaign, Arpaio broke GOP ranks, and returned the favor by doing a TV ad on Napolitano's behalf.

As governor, Napolitano was instrumental in bringing the 287(g) program — which allows beat cops to play immigration enforcer — to Arizona and into Arpaio's eager mitts. How ironic that ICE, which is part of DHS, has had to strip Arpaio of some of the very same authority because of the very same civil rights concerns Napolitano felt free to ignore while she was governor.

I called Burke's office to ask him for a response to Iglesias' would-be willingness to indict. One of Burke's spokesmen, Patrick Hornbuckle, got back to me with the standard "we decline to comment."

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons