Head on a skewer: Joe Arpaio was so obsessed with getting a hard-charging New Times writer prosecuted that he badgered Andy Thomas into making a fool of himself

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Just last month, an attorney for New Times wrote to the county Board of Supervisors about the paper's plan to sue Joe Arpaio ("Blowback," February 21), Andy Thomas, and fired special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik.

In the February 20 Notice of Claim letter, attorney Michael Manning wrote that Rick Romley had rebuffed the sheriff's request for the prosecution of John Dougherty during his last months in office.

But Romley tells New Times that he never heard about "the Dougherty matter" on his watch.

"I'm sure Joe and his people figured that we wouldn't have done anything with this thing, and they were probably right," Romley says. "That 'case' had nothing but trouble written all over it, from a prosecution aspect."

Arpaio didn't wait long after Romley left office to approach Andy Thomas. Lawyer Ron Lebowitz of the Sheriff's Office wrote in a 2005 memo, "The Sheriff brought this matter to the attention of the present County Attorney almost immediately following [his] inauguration."

That was several months after Dougherty's column supposedly had caused such a "serious and imminent threat" to Arpaio's safety.

On April 15, 2005, the county attorney's investigator, John Stolze, met with the MCSO's Ray Jones to discuss the Dougherty case.

Stolze asked Lieutenant Jones if he had interviewed Dougherty as part of his probe. Jones replied that he hadn't, claiming Dougherty was "unstable."

Jones handed Stolze a lengthy report that concluded with a plea for prosecution. He included a long history of alleged threats made against Arpaio, almost all of them supposedly occurring before the July 2004 column.

In a section titled "John Dougherty's Erratic Behavior," Jones recounted the sheriff's version of the parking lot meeting at the Mustang Library, and included the transcript of a voice mail that an irate Dougherty left for one of the sheriff's flacks in August 2004.

The lieutenant wrote that Arpaio had advised him that "due to his years as head of the DEA in the Middle East (some of these countries are now terrorist states)" he had made a load of enemies.

"Now they can access his home address as well," Jones wrote, as if publication on New Times' Web site was the only place on the Net to learn where the sheriff resides.

(Arpaio, incidentally, was known as "Nickel Bag Joe" inside the DEA because of the small-time busts he'd favored.)

"It is believed that John Dougherty has an obsession towards Sheriff Arpaio," Jones concluded. "[His] commentaries in his articles about the Sheriff are damaging in nature."

The lieutenant said it was "reasonable to assume that Dougherty himself knew that by disclosing the Sheriff's address and all of the derogatory remarks he has written about the Sheriff, that the articles may incite some people to become so incensed that they may resort to some type of retaliatory attacks on Sheriff Arpaio and his family."

Prosecutor Liz Gilbert asked investigator Stolze to check the Web for any personal information under Joe Arpaio's name. According to Stolze's report, "I located numerous documents that contain Sheriff Arpaio's personal residence address."

On April 18, 2005, Stolze phoned Dougherty. The paper's legal counsel, Steve Suskin, returned the call, saying he had advised Dougherty not to talk.

The Incident Review Board meeting was scheduled for early May.

But Stolze's supervisors wanted more facts before moving forward. The aforementioned interview with the Arpaios was a must, and the panel's meeting was postponed until that August.

That gave Ron Lebowitz, then the sheriff's legal point man on the "Dougherty matter," more time to compose the first of dozens of memos he would send about the case to prosecutors in two jurisdictions over the next year and a half.

Ron Lebowitz has had a long legal career in Phoenix, where he has been practicing since 1973.

As a private attorney, he defended New Times in a 1981 libel allegation by then-Arizona Republic Publisher Darrow "Duke" Tully, who resigned in disgrace a few years later after he was exposed as having lied about serving as a pilot in Korea and Vietnam.

Lebowitz's reputation for courtroom bombast has rivaled that of his better-known (these days) peer Dennis Wilenchik. Maybe that's why he and Joe Arpaio connected in the late 1990s, when Lebowitz was working as a deputy county attorney.

In May 1999, Superior Court Judge Gregory Martin dismissed some criminal charges against an infamous Phoenix slumlord because of then-prosecutor Lebowitz's "intentional, in bad faith, and grossly improper" conduct.

Lebowitz went to work for Arpaio full time after that.

He was present on June 13, 2005, when John Stolze and Deputy County Attorney Jonell Lucca interviewed Ava and Joe Arpaio, one at a time.

Word that their home address had been published "made my blood pressure go up," Ava Arpaio said in her brief interview. "I was very, very nervous and have been, and I still am very worried about it."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin