Feathered Bastard

Joe Arpaio, J. Edgar Hoover and E.J. Montini

I was up too late the other night watching a documentary on the National Geographic Channel about Hoover and his many, many sins. And aside from Hoover's reported penchant for getting himself up in drag, the similarities between the iconic FBI chief and our own Sheriff Arpaio are unavoidable. One in particular struck me as a couple of the talking heads discussed how Hoover garnered the favor of the press back in the day.

One pointed out how the long-serving director had a whole PR division called the Crime Records Division, noting that it "really should have been called the Hoover Publicity Division."

Said another, "Hoover had a public relations staff, which was bigger than any actor or actress has in Hollywood. Their job was to keep the FBI's name and Hoover's name in the newspapers every single day."

If such quotes call to mind Sheriff's Office flack Lisa Allen and her squad of professional sycophants, then you've probably been living in Maricopa County too long. John Dowd of the U.S. Department of Justice's organized crime task force pointed out in the doc that Hoover was a master at manipulating the media.

"The game you play with the press is that you leak to them," he told the camera. "And they are thereby indebted to you."

This is very similar to the game now being played between Arizona Republic columnist E.J. Montini and Sheriff Arpaio. Although, it's not really a matter of leaking anything. Arpaio doesn't have to leak. He just hands over whatever he wants to Phoenix's paper of record, knowing that even if they smack him around a little bit, it'll be like those fake slaps they do in TV dramas where the hand never touches the face. It looks real, though damage is not inflicted.

In the case of Montini, Arpaio returns his calls and gives him fodder for his columns. Most recently, Montini did a column on the hunger strike going on in Joe's jails. But the column wasn't about the thousands who've been refusing MCSO meals on and off, it was about Arpaio taking a pot shot at one of his regular critics, Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox.

Montini dutifully repeats what the sheriff has to say, all while giving himself enough wiggle room to make it seem as if he's taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to this outlandish political figure with all the power of a mini-Hoover.

"The sheriff then reminds me that Supervisor Wilcox owns the Phoenix restaurant El Portal, and suggests that I look at her business' Health Department inspections.

"And I do. It turns out that in the past year or so Wilcox's restaurant has been savaged by inspectors for everything from "toxic materials not properly labeled" to "food, drink, and/or ice not protected from cross contamination" to `sewage not properly disposed of.'

"Included are the kinds of violations that could get a place shut down if not corrected.

"As for what this has to do with the inmate complaints about jail food, Arpaio says, `She doesn't like the way I feed the inmates and she received serious violations from the county.'"

You've got to love that line, "As for what this has to do with inmate complaints about jail food..." Here Montini winks at his readers, suggesting that he knows that Arpaio's diatribe is full of it. See, Montini's playing the medieval courtier flattering a king, while trying to indicate to others that he's way smarter than his master.

So why write a whole column allowing Arpaio to attack one of the few political enemies with the stones to oppose him? Might Montini just be having some fun at Arpaio's expense? He'd like for his more enlightened readers to buy that. But the end result is that Arpaio still gets his message out, through his willing tool, E.J. Montini.

"Arpaio makes no apologies for the food's bad taste," writes Montini at one point, "If anything, he celebrates it. And why not? Anyone who has followed the sheriff's antics over the years (and haven't we all?) understands that he has elevated bad taste to an art form.

"It turns out that if you check out the county health records for the sheriff's kitchen facilities, however, the evaluations are pretty good. Most infractions seem minor."

Of course, the paint found peeling from the walls and ceilings of more than one Arpaio gulag  is only a concern if you have to pick it out of your gruel. And if you monitor the up-and-down history of the kitchens in Joe's various facilities through county health records, you do find some unappetizing descriptions.

"Observed live mouse in kitchen area," reads one report on Durango from November of last year. In September, a health inspector noted "mouse droppings on packages of Styrofoam food containers" and "a dead mouse on a trap" in Estrella's kitchen. And just this March 5 at Estrella, an inspector spotted "three live mice in glue board on floor behind kettles in kitchen." As for the Fourth Avenue Jail, it's still awaiting its "award" from its last inspection.

This is not to pooh-pooh the problems of Wilcox's El Portal, where no one is forced to eat, BTW. But Arpaio's use of the Wilcox kitchen's failings is a pretty rotten red herring. It's not like Wilcox told the food strikers to abstain from the gross melange they're offered daily.

Indeed, given the choice of eating a plate of enchiladas at El Portal, or eating a tray of mashed potatoes covered in Joe's foul slop, I think most folks would select the former. But even this is a false comparison. Arpaio's prisoners, about 70 percent of whom are pre-trial detainees, don't have that option. Sure, no one expects the food in stir to beat out El Portal's grub in a taste test. But at the very least, the MCSO's food should not inspire a gag reflex. 

Just today, the MCSO announced that it's ended the lockdown Arpaio was using to punish the food strikers. An MCSO press release quotes Joe as saying that if the hunger strike resumes, "the lockdown will be re-instituted."

What's curious is that Arpaio, despite statements to the contrary, seems to actually care about the deservedly bad rap his jail food is receiving. So much so, he's called upon his favorite columnist to act as his megaphone in an attempt to divert the public's attention. It's not the first time Montini has served this purpose for the sheriff. And undoubtedly, it will not be the last. 

As for J. Edgar Hoover, something tells me he and Montini would've had a grand relationship. The irony is that the Republic is today reporting that the FBI is questioning city and county officials about Arpaio's intimidation tactics. Why, maybe I'm wrong about E.J. Maybe he's furiously working on a column right now congratulating the FBI and calling Arpaio to task. Um, maybe. But I won't be turning blue in the face waiting on it.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons