Unless you live under a rock, you know Sheriff Joe Arpaio: He's the aging lawman with a doughy face you see on TV, delivering sound bites about being "America's toughest sheriff." The one who relishes publicity.
And it's not just about being on TV, although anyone who's met Joe Arpaio will tell you that's a big part of it. No, Arpaio loves being sheriff — enough that he'll do just about anything to keep the job.
It's not just about running smart campaigns and working hard. That would be understandable, even admirable.
Instead, it's about intimidation and retribution. It's about coming after deputies who question the sheriff's carefully polished image. It's about seeking revenge on former allies who dare to support someone else. It's about silencing political opposition.
In his 14 years as sheriff, Arpaio has turned Maricopa County jails into dangerous hellholes. People have died in restraint chairs and they've died in inmate brawls. Miserable conditions even prompted an unprecedented investigation by Amnesty International, which, in its first-ever probe into a county jail, concluded that Arpaio's operation violated basic human rights.
But the most dangerous place in the county, after the jails, is on Sheriff Joe's bad side. Oppose him, and he'll follow you around, rifle through your trash, hold a press conference about how bad you are, even arrest you.
And these days, the sheriff's power to intimidate his political enemies is greater than ever.
That's because under Rick Romley, the County Attorney's Office served as a voice of reason to, and occasional brake on, Arpaio. Under Romley's successor, Andrew Thomas, the office has become a willing partner in political shenanigans.
No potential rival is immune from the pair's "investigations." No conflict of interest is ever acknowledged.
And no case is too petty to pursue, so long as the TV cameras are rolling.
Longtime readers of this newspaper are familiar with Joe Arpaio's history. Court records, signed affidavits, interviews, and archive searches reveal a long list of vengeful actions Arpaio has taken against political opponents:
• Sheriff's Office employees who've spoken out have endured slanted investigations from the sheriff's internal affairs unit, been transferred or fired, and sometimes been harassed at their new jobs.
• At least two men, Tom Bearup and Ernest Hancock, were tailed after they announced their interest in Arpaio's job. Arpaio's second-in-command, David Hendershott, targeted Bearup as a threat to the sheriff. Hendershott even ordered an underling to write a memo that painted Bearup, the sheriff's former top deputy, as a security risk.
• Deputies tapped the phone of Bearup's campaign aide, Jim Cozzolino. Deputies also rifled through his trash. Cozzolino was later arrested under dubious circumstances and served four months in jail. Cozzolino sued, claiming that Arpaio violated his constitutional rights. The sheriff was forced to settle.
• Republican activists say they've been penalized for backing candidates other than Arpaio. After Lee Watkins backed another candidate, deputies raided his business and home and launched a public investigation. Three years later, no charges have been filed.
• Arpaio's most recent foe, Dan Saban, was painted as a sexual deviant when Arpaio's people slipped a damaging report from a questionable source to a TV reporter. After Saban sued, the sheriff's lawyer wrote letters attempting to get Saban fired from his current job.
• Dan Pochoda, the Arizona ACLU's legal director, publicly fought with Arpaio about immigration and Arpaio's treatment of a jailed tuberculosis patient. At an immigration rally, sheriff's deputies hauled Pochoda to jail rather than issue him a citation. They claimed that Pochoda refused to leave the rally, held on private property.
Justice in Maricopa County has gotten only more warped since Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas formed an alliance.
They even formed a task force created to fight corruption, called Operation MACE. The task force has had questionable results:
• Its first indictment was of Russ Jones, a state legislator from Yuma. The charges were petty, at best, and were quickly dismissed by a judge.
• Seven months ago, the pair made much ado about their investigation of Attorney General Terry Goddard — one of Thomas' top political rivals. Thomas and Arpaio have issued numerous press releases, but the investigation has yet to yield a single indictment.
• A top Thomas aide worked closely with sheriff's deputies to investigate a campaign mailer from Democrat Jackie Thrasher, who was running for the Arizona House. Despite three search warrants, and the seizure of four computers belonging to a Democratic operative just weeks before the 2006 election, the case boiled down to a questionable decal shown in a photo on a campaign brochure. No charges have been filed. Thrasher's opponent, Jim Weiers, is the father of a Maricopa County sheriff's deputy.
The most recent example of Arpaio and Thomas' shoddy teamwork has been their most public screw-up. It's the story of what they tried to do to this newspaper.