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Sheriff Joe Arpaio's neuroses are the stuff of legend, the wellspring of his unquenchable thirst for attention. If ego were anorexia, Arpaio would look like Manute Bol.

As a lawman, Arpaio has been a scofflaw. Whether he and his charges are lynching, maiming and exploiting suspects, pocketing pink underwear money, illegally misspending state funds, soaking taxpayers for wrongful-death payoffs, harassing conscientious employees, plotting his own assassination, losing track of pink underwear money or flouting the state's Public Records Act, Arpaio has amply demonstrated that he considers himself to be exempt from the very laws he is sworn to uphold.

His tireless public relations juggernaut begets robust approval ratings. Those, in turn, deter those in positions to apply accountability -- judges, prosecutors, journalists, his fellow politicians. Even when Arpaio is clearly in the wrong, which is often, these putative guardians of the public trust quake in his shadow. On top of everything else, the man is a political thug.

But familiarity breeds contempt, which explains why the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors is quietly undermining Arpaio's bravado. Its diabolical weapons? Accountants. The board does, after all, have some control of the sheriff's purse strings -- his current budget exceeds $112 million.

Last week, the board received an audit it had commissioned to examine some aspects of the sheriff's spending. The audit is a joke, a testament to Arpaio's stonewalling and arrogance. After months of work, accountants from the firms of Deloitte & Touche and KPMG were unable to obtain fundamental data.

The bean-counters were to examine Arpaio's compliance with his fiscal 2000-2001 budget in some specific areas -- the sheriff's auto fleet and gasoline consumption and his Aviation Fund. "MCSO was not able to provide the reviewers with documentation showing compliance" with the budget, the auditors concluded.

Not able? Or not willing?

"I think in the time frame they'd been given, more information could have been available in a more timely manner," Ross Tate, county auditor, says of the Sheriff's Office.

Tate is a master of understatement.

Lisa Allen, Arpaio's spokeswoman, says the auditors are responsible for the dismal results. "They just didn't know what they were doing," she says. "That's not our problem."

Allen says the numbers crunchers should have gone to the county Finance Department for their data, not bothered the Sheriff's Office, where managers scramble to whittle a huge overtime tab -- the department can't hire and retain enough patrol officers. The same holds true of jail staffing.

"We've lost more people in six months than we'd lost in two years," Allen says.

It's tough work, abusing inmates.

The sheriff and the Board of Supervisors have clashed over money before, with mixed results. In 1995, the sheriff sued the board after the supervisors had the temerity to include Arpaio's office in a countywide austerity program. Arpaio lost that battle.

The sheriff and supervisors were at it again in 1999, after the "retirement" of the sheriff's right-hand man, David Hendershott. This made Hendershott eligible for an annual pension of $51,000. But Arpaio rehired Hendershott at his previous salary of $120,000. The supervisors promptly voted to cut Hendershott's salary to $69,000. A judge ruled that the board could not deny Hendershott, and he has since sued the county.

Allen says the true aim of the audit is to discredit Hendershott. "If they can nail David Hendershott into looking like a bad manager, which he isn't, you'd have five very happy supervisors," she says.

There's little doubt that Hendershott's double-dipping and litigation spurred the supervisors to deploy the bookkeepers.

When the sheriff demanded big increases in leased autos and gasoline for his 2000-2001 budget, the supervisors ordered him to justify the expenses. Arpaio agreed to provide data on vehicle usage and assignment by May 21. He didn't. And he still hadn't by the time the auditors completed their number crunching in December.

Although his fuel costs increased by 46 percent, the sheriff "could not provide sufficient evidence to determine to what extent fuel consumption increases were caused by expanded service efforts," the auditors report.

Arpaio's office wasn't any more forthcoming about its aircraft usage. "MCSO could not provide Deloitte & Touche with a complete accounting of its Aviation Fund revenues and expenditures," the audit report says. ". . . The fund's revenues do not appear to be sufficient to cover all expenditures . . ."

Allen says this is because of the sheriff's acquisition of a second rescue helicopter. Other police agencies were expected to hire that 'copter, but "none of those contracts came to fruition," she says.

The sheriff's auto fleet increased by 103 vehicles (19 percent) between June 1999 and June 2000. Once again, auditors say, the sheriff "could not provide sufficient evidence to determine a) that the increases were due to expanded service efforts or b) compliance with County policy requirements addressing employees' overnight vehicle usage."

When auditors tried to interview sheriff's employees to see why they were taking county vehicles home at night, the sheriff refused to provide employee phone numbers. He invoked security concerns -- some of the cars are driven by undercover officers. The accountants managed to speak with only eight workers.

"When it came to certain finance aspects, like the cars, we didn't keep a very watchful eye, like we should have," Allen concedes. ". . . I don't think that makes us bad managers. It makes us overworked and busy managers."

She notes that the sheriff has also responded by converting some take-home cars into pool cars.

"The Sheriff's Office has turned in many, many of their leased cars in the past month," one senior county official tells me. "There's a big change that happened in December, less than a month ago. We were getting nowhere, as this audit clearly attests. They sort of had an epiphany over there at the Sheriff's Office."

County wags credit Loretta Barkell, the sheriff's new budget director, with helping to right the errant ship. Barkell worked in the county's Finance Department before she moved to the Sheriff's Office.

Barkell replaced Glenn Christenson, who had been hired by Hendershott. Christenson, you might recall, is the administrator who used a county purchasing card to lease $30,000 worth of Harley-Davidson motorcycles without seeking competitive bids. When the acquisition was revealed, Christenson told investigators that a friend from "back East" was paying for the motorcycles. Then he changed his story and said he would pay for them himself. Christenson has a new title, deputy chief.

Sources say that Barkell's experience with the county's budget process has helped her convince the Sheriff's Office that the Board of Supervisors isn't merely persecuting them.

The board will pay more than $35,000 for the audit. In any other case, I'd say the county had been ripped off. Yet despite the dearth of data, the study served its purpose -- documenting Arpaio's obfuscation.

So why aren't the supervisors raising hell? None of them would agree to talk about the audit. Spines don't grow overnight. Moreover, Arpaio's apparent conversion in the face of his department's pathetic fiscal performance has county administrators exchanging high fives.

"We are very optimistic," one county official says. "If it doesn't work, you'll be seeing more audits."

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