Exit Interview: Sheriff Joe Arpaio Defends His Record to New Times and Discusses His Future

The display cabinet behind the desk of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been cleaned out. The walls of his expansive office on the third floor of the sheriff's space-agey headquarters at 550 West Jackson Street are bare; photographs and framed awards overlap on the floor, ready to be boxed up.

Clad in a dress shirt and sport coat, soon-to-be-just-Mr.-Arpaio looks weary. It's understandable: At the age of 84, he fought to convince voters to return him to office for a record seventh four-year term, all the while battling forces including billionaire activist George Soros (who funded the campaign of Arpaio's successful competitor, Democrat Paul Penzone), a federal judge, and, of course, outgoing President Barack Obama.

And he lost.

He's entitled to feel disoriented. So do many metro Phoenix residents.

Maricopa County has known Arpaio for what seems like ages. The man has been in office for 24 years.

New Times has been on his case since he turned the immense jail he oversees and the force of sworn officers into his own campaign circus. With the help of Lisa Allen, a former TV reporter who he brags was the only outside employee he brought into the agency after he was first elected in 1992, he concocted publicity stunt after publicity stunt, trying to keep the media spotlight shining on him at all times and, whenever he deemed it necessary, using his office like a bulldozer to clear out and trample political enemies.

Voters who liked Arpaio as a man, liked his policies, or both, returned the sheriff to office again and again. As they did, former New Times staff writers including Tony Ortega, John Dougherty, Paul Rubin, and Sarah Fenske, along with former executive editor Michael Lacey and current writers including managing editor Amy Silverman, columnist Stephen Lemons and this reporter — along with many journalists around the state — dogged him.

Whatever his alleged accomplishments, he had an often shockingly bad record of inmate safety, commitment to the communities his office served, discrimination and hassling of immigrants and Latinos, targeting perceived enemies with bogus criminal investigations, withholding of public records, failing to investigate hundreds of sex crimes and other cases of actual crime, employing a tyrannical chief deputy (David Hendershott) to do his bidding, and wasting enough taxpayer money on lawyers to defend the county from the consequences of his decisions to build several new schools.

Click here for a compilation of stories about Arpaio from the past two decades.

Arpaio isn't as sharp as he was when he first took office. But he comes alive during media interviews, staying focused on questions that would trip up a novice public official. When he's forgetful, there's always the lingering question of whether he's being intentionally so. When it comes to bluster and defensiveness, he hasn't lost a step.

But on the recent day when he sat with New Times for a wide-ranging interview, he had the look of a man who hadn't come to grips with what befell him the week before.

Arpaio denied that he had plans to resign if he'd been re-elected, and he said Donald Trump hasn't called him about a possible job, despite widespread reports that the president-elect is considering him for Homeland Security secretary.

Asked if he was ready for the job if that call did come, Arpaio whipped out his newly updated, five-page executive résumé. It shows the highlights of a man who has lived a big life, starting with the fact that he served as sheriff since January 1993. (It does not mention that one of his campaign promises was to serve no more than one term.)

After leaving the U.S. Army as a sergeant in 1953, Arpaio began his career in law enforcement, working as a cop in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas. As he has touted many times, he worked in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and its predecessor, the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, serving in Turkey in the 1960s and Mexico City in the 1970s, in addition to stateside assignments. He lists no professional experience from the time he retired in 1982 as special-agent-in-charge of the Arizona division of the DEA until he was elected sheriff 11 years later.

Few words fit Arpaio better than "cunning," a label hung on him by his former chief deputy, Hendershott, whom Arpaio pressured to resign in 2011 following a damning internal report. Cunning implies trickery and deceit, and Arpaio's record shows he wasn't always fully honest with the public — or with his top commanders, who at times turned on him and Hendershott.

For many reasons, being booted out of office in a fair election was an appropriate ending for a master politician. Arpaio put armored vehicles in political aisles instead of reaching across them. He was a poster boy for theatrical, immigrant-bashing attack-politics long before Donald Trump used those tactics to win the presidency.

For someone who gloated in election after election that he and his policies had a mandate because the people had spoken, Arpaio, who faces a criminal contempt charge for violations of a federal court order in the racial-discrimination case Melendres v. Arpaio, now feels the same sting of defeat he enjoyed inflicting on others.

* * *

Noticing that Arpaio seemed off-kilter as last Thursday's interview commenced, New Times points out  the bright side of leaving office: Nobody can say he's a quitter, and he's not dead.

"Thank for saying the first part," he says, hinting that he might have preferred to die in office than lose an election.

Barring a Trump appointment or health or legal obstacles, Arpaio says, he could have seen himself running for an eighth term in 2020, when he'll be 88.

"I am a fighter," he says. "I went down in a fight. I didn't just surrender. That's what I am. Especially when you know you're right."

He and his wife, Ava, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer last year, will move on to the next stage of their life together. He considers himself very lucky to have had Ava beside him — or, as it goes, not beside him — for support.

"I love my wife," he says. "She put up with me for 59 years, followed me to Turkey, Mexico City — I could go on and on. She has never complained. She has never said, 'All you do is work, you think of your job more than me.' That gave me the luxury of working 14 hours a day, whether it was giving speeches or running this office. And I had no pressure.

"She was with me till the end. She really wanted me to win this time."

Ava's health is "way better" lately, he says.

"She's sad that I lost, but you've got to go on," he says quietly. "I wanted my wife to swear me in again this time."

At one point in the interview, Arpaio's third in command, Deputy Chief Dave Trombi, strolls into the office, pretending to be on his mobile phone and loudly interrupting, "No, just an application for Chick-fil-A, that's all I'm looking for."

The act, performed for New Times' benefit, is only half in jest. Trombi has worked for the sheriff's office for much of his life and is a loyal Arpaio-ite. It remains to be seen whether Penzone retains close associates of Arpaio in high-ranking positions or transfers potentially disloyal troops to undesirable jobs the way Arpaio did after his 2004 re-election.

"What [Penzone] does is going to be his decision, not mine," Arpaio grumbles.

Throughout the interview, Arpaio laments that the media usually fails to cover the great work his agency does. He notes that law-enforcement agencies from around the country ask for training and help from the MCSO, which is one of the largest offices of its kind.

"We must be pretty good, if everybody wants us to teach them," he says. "We're a professional organization."

The opinion isn't universally shared. Arpaio has been blasted by journalists and other law-enforcement officials for exactly the opposite — that is, for running a highly unprofessional organization for the sake of publicity or other tactical advantage that could help him get re-elected.

For instance, he got in a very public squabble over his immigration sweeps with then-Mesa Police Chief George Gascon. Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk once compared his abuse of power to fascism. A three-member disciplinary panel of the state supreme court likened his alliance with ex-County Attorney Andy Thomas — whom the panel disbarred in 2012 — to an "unholy collaboration."

Former Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris, former Arizona U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton, and former state Attorney General Terry Goddard aided an ultimately unsuccessful recall movement against the sheriff in 2013.

While politics plays a part in some of the criticism against the sheriff (especially coming from people like Goddard, a Democrat), Arpaio's own top commanders have at times questioned and criticized his decisions. Arpaio chalks that up to politics, too — the internal, office variety.

"There are some police chiefs that don't like me," he says. "That's okay. It's the cops I'm concerned with."

Arpaio won't admit that his most famous — and infamous — ideas, from immigration patrols to his Tent City jail to allowing Steven Seagal to participate in a raid, were dreamed up for publicity's sake. Yet he points out that being a "high-profile" politician could work to his advantage.

Would he change anything about the so-called running Joe Show if he could? Does he look back with regret on the jail deaths, the uninvestigated rape cases, have second thoughts about teaming up with Andy Thomas, rue the immigration raids and sweeps, et cetera.?

"Jail deaths?" he asks with a puzzled expression, adding that those allegations were "a long time ago."

But Arpaio has a ready answer for the "regrets" question. He picks up his trademark flip phone and mentions the ringtone with which he has regaled reporters for many years: Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

"Regrets, I've had a few," Arpaio says now.

He declines to cite anything specific, however. He's surprisingly tame on the subject of New Times, saying he "has nothing against" former owners Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, whom his office had arrested on false charges of giving away grand-jury secrets. The county settled a lawsuit over the case for $3.75 million, which the pair donated to Arizona State University. And Arpaio praises the work of Stephen Lemons, whose reporting was mentioned prominently by Arizona U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow during the Melendres contempt hearings.

On just about any potential source of criticism, he quickly goes on the defensive.

For example, he denies that the Melendres case has cost taxpayers $48 million. County bean counters put the tab at $48 million but say it will be $72 million by the time the case is finished. That's on top of costs to defend a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit that accused Arpaio of running one of the most discriminatory police agencies in the nation's history, plus tens of millions in settlements for various injuries and deaths in county jail or by deputies in the field.

Considering the good that money could have been put toward, shouldn't Arpaio have resigned two or three years ago to avoid racking up such an immense bill?

Arpaio starts his answer by saying the county's estimate of the Melendres case — published widely in the news media — is wrong. Pressed for specifics, he switches tack.

"You can go blame the [American Civil Liberties Union] that brought this," he fumes. "You can blame [former U.S. Attorney General Eric] Holder and Obama. As far as the money, yeah, you can thank the ACLU and the justice department for that."

If anything, Arpaio goes on, his office has been run so efficiently over the years that he has saved the county at least $13 million a year. Besides, the five-member county board of supervisors approves his office's budget (typically more than $250 million a year) and has provided ample funds for items like helicopters, a first-rate shooting range, and a 911 operation Arpaio says is the best in the nation.

He says he'd like to believe that the supervisors fund the sheriff's office like the topnotch agency it is "because I'm a high-profile guy and I'm so high in the polls. I'd like to think that maybe my popularity has helped, too — you know, the resources."

He seems to warm to the idea as the interview goes on: "That's why I became high profile. To help get the money I need, for the county."

Arpaio dismisses complaints about conditions in the county jail under his reign as easily now as he did in 1995, when the feds first launched an investigation into alleged abuse of inmates.

"Wait a minute, 2.3 million people have come through the jails since I've been sheriff," he says. "Now, they're not Hilton Hotel jails. I have to aggravate someone."

Ironically, Arpaio did operate a separate, cushier jail at an MCSO facility in Mesa that deputies called the "Mesa Hilton." Country star Glen Campbell and the daughter of sports mogul Jerry Colangelo stayed there for their DUI sentences.

Spending money and fending off wrongful-action lawsuits are the "nature of the business," he says. If you take the money he's allegedly cost the county and divide it by 24 (the number of years he has been sheriff), he points out, it doesn't look that bad.

"Sometimes you crash cars, sometimes you shoot the wrong people — I'm not saying we did that," he says.

But they certainly did, and often taxpayers paid dearly — as in 2010, when the county paid $2 million after two deputies sent to Louisiana to help people affected by Hurricane Katrina shot out a man's eye for no apparent reason.

Arpaio keeps up his denial that he or his troops did anything wrong in Melendres, the long-running federal civil case accusing Arpaio of leading an agency that discriminates against Hispanics. In 2013, Judge Snow ruled that the MCSO was committing racial profiling.

Apparently throwing caution to the wind in his contempt case, which Snow initiated because of Arpaio's failure to adhere to rules set up in the wake of the 2013 ruling, the sheriff maintained in TV ads leading up to this year's election that the case was "garbage" cooked up as a political vendetta by the justice department under Obama.

He takes a noticeably less aggressive stance in the interview, admitting, "We may have held some people a bit longer than we should have."

Deputies did much more than that over Arpaio's lengthy tenure, the historical record shows. But not according to Arpaio.

"My deputies do not discriminate — I do not discriminate," he says. "We arrest anybody that violates the law. It doesn't matter who they are."

The way he talks, you'd think deputies weren't sent out to find undocumented immigrants by pulling people over for minor offenses like cracked windshields. Besides scads of anecdotal reports, lawyers for the government and the ACLU say statistical analyses show a demonstrable pattern of discrimination.

Arpaio says the stats are part of the ongoing "court case" and that he can't get into detail about it.

"The statistics — we're still looking at that," he says. "I think it's been overblown. I would never ... authorize any discrimination."
The sheriff confesses that "these are things that are very hard to explain. Going out, I'm very proud. I'm the longest-serving sheriff in county history."

"I'm the first sheriff ever re-elected — ever re-elected!" he says, apparently meaning the first one re-elected so many times. "I'm the first one, with all the things you're saying. People are arguing, how come I got elected six times? Sometimes I ask me the question!"

However he managed to survive all those elections, Arpaio says, this year was different.

"This wasn't normal with me, with George Soros pumping in $3 million," he says. "I had a lot of forces against me."

Arpaio repeats several times that "they" wanted him out of office.

"I ran against myself," he says. "They wanted me out. You could have run for sheriff."

Penzone, a former Phoenix police officer, "ran a pretty good campaign," Arpaio says. "He didn't have to do much. That's okay. He didn't get negative that much. You've got to give him credit."

Arpaio surmises that perhaps he rubbed key local Republicans the wrong way, eradicating some of his support. He has helped one person or another in their primary elections over the years, which creates enemies as well as friends. Maybe it finally caught up to him.

"We'll see what the future holds," Arpaio says. "Remember, I retired once before, when I was 55."

It's unclear whether he's bragging or looking for sympathy when he complains, "I have no hobbies: none!"

"It ended, okay?" he says. "But I'm proud of what I've done. And I don't take a backseat to anybody."

He says he'll likely begin retirement by honoring some recent requests for speeches, predicting he may be even more controversial out of office than in.

"I've got a lot of exciting things to say," he boasts.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern