Histrionics Lesson

Superior Court Judge Michael D. Jones should be proud of himself. He has made it virtually impossible for the public to find out what is going on inside a sheriff's department that is noted for cruelty, ineptitude and downright stupidity.

In ruling against New Times in a public records lawsuit filed last September 23, Jones stated that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office -- which includes a jail system with more than 10,000 inmates and pretrial detainees -- did not act in bad faith in refusing to produce documents sought under the Arizona public records law.

New Times is appealing.

Jones made the ruling despite overwhelming evidence presented in the case that clearly shows the sheriff's office acted in bad faith. Not only did the MCSO fail to provide records I formally requested in writing for several months, the department's communications director said the MCSO would "never" release public records to New Times.

Faced with no other option, New Times filed suit. Only after that happened did the MCSO reluctantly provide some of the records requested. The MCSO still has not responded to some of my public records requests dating back 14 months.

The August 3 ruling will make it easier for Arpaio to keep secret horrific conditions inside the county's overcrowded jails. Wrongful-death lawsuits seeking more than $30 million in damages are already pending against the MCSO.

The dunderheaded decision will also allow the sheriff to more easily hide from the public and the press on issues ranging from the performance of his deputies in police operations to prostitution stings gone awry to undercover drug investigations in area high schools.

New Times filed the suit in the months leading up to last September's Republican primary. Arpaio was facing a spirited challenge from retired Mesa Police Department Commander Dan Saban.

Arpaio's communications director, Lisa Allen-McPherson, said at the time that the sheriff's office was refusing to release the records because she does not like New Times and does not believe it is a legitimate newspaper. Needless to say, the state public records law does not allow a government agency to base decisions regarding the release of public records on such arbitrary and ridiculous criteria.

Arpaio's vindictive -- and what I still contend to be illegal -- refusal to release the public records to New Times is typical of his arrogant behavior since he was first elected in 1992.

It is clear to me that Arpaio ignored the state public records law in the summer of 2004 to protect his foundering reelection campaign from further damage. Arpaio, a former Democrat turned Republican, had lost support of his own party when top county Republicans voted to endorse Saban in the primary. Among other things, GOP leaders were angry that Arpaio backed now-Governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, during the final days of the 2002 election instead of Republican Matt Salmon.

By last July, Saban had won endorsements from every police union and fraternal organization in the state. Despite Arpaio's popularity with the public fueled by his tough-guy image, the 73-year-old sheriff is widely despised in law enforcement circles for his relentless self-promotion and general incompetence.

Saban continued to gain momentum when U.S. Senator John McCain endorsed him. Clearly worried that his tenure as sheriff could be ended by the upstart challenger, the last thing Arpaio wanted was more damaging information from public records getting into my hands. I already had used MCSO records obtained under the public records law to prepare a feature story sharply critical of Arpaio ("In the Crosshairs," June 24, 2004). Public records had always been hard to get from the MCSO, but in an attempt to keep a negative story based on public records from coming out again before the primary, Arpaio's public information officers started ignoring requests for documents from New Times.

This went on for four months before New Times sued.

Filing a lawsuit to obtain public records is an expensive and time-consuming process. The public records law is supposed to allow the press -- and, for that matter, any citizen -- timely access to records. If a government agency refuses to respond to a public records request, the only recourse is to seek a judge's order.

Many of the records New Times sought were routine police reports. The sheriff's office, for example, refused to release the arrest records and incident reports in a July 23, 2004, SWAT team raid on an Ahwatukee house that left the home burned down, a puppy incinerated and a car smashed after the brakes failed on MCSO's armored personnel carrier ("Dog Day Afternoon," August 5, 2004).

Other records requests involved the release of voluminous numbers of documents. One asked for a complete accounting of the millions of dollars generated from the sale of food and other items to inmates locked in county jails, including Tent City. Another sought the release of booking records for a Mesa jail facility where Arpaio has allowed the well-heeled (including country-music legend Glen Campbell) to serve jail sentences in air-conditioned comfort in return for substantial campaign contributions or other favors ("Arpaio's Running Scared," July 15, 2004; "Special Treatment," August 19, 2004; and "Jailgate Explodes," August 26, 2004).

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty