A group of seven activists either arrested or cited by the sheriff's office as a result of demonstrations at Maricopa County Board of Supervisors' meetings have settled their claims for wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution for a total of nearly $500,000.
All seven were suing the county separately, and had submitted notices of claim for hundreds of thousands of dollars each. In a day-long mediation this Tuesday, the parties agreed upon substantially lower figures.
Apparently, one individual was not happy with the settlements: Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Chief Deputy David Hendershott, who was present at the mediation, according to several sources.
These sources tell me that Hendershott threatened the mediator, former Superior Court Judge Christopher Skelly, with some sort of legal action.
Maricopa County spokeswoman Cari Gerchick declined to comment on the allegations involving Hendershott and Skelly, but she did provide the text of a letter she said was sent over by the sheriff's office to Skelly during the mediation,
"This is a litigation hold requesting that all notes, emails, correspondence and other documentation in the matter of_____be preserved in light of prospective and future litigation."
Sources describe Skelly as being visibly upset and offended by the encounter with Hendershott. They also described Skelly crumpling the letter in his hand in outrage.
Skelly declined comment on the matter. I put in a call to MCSO spokesman Brian Lee for a response, but have yet to receive a call back.
The move to settle the lawsuits was the county's call to make, not that of the sheriff's office.
"The cases were settled," said Gerchick, "to avoid a costly and protracted litigation battle, which would have exposed the county and the taxpayers to great financial risk."
Indeed, the arrests themselves were absurd overkill on the part of the MCSO. They involved, in one instance, the collaring of four women after a peaceful protest, where demonstrators donned cat and dog masks outside one Board of Supervisors meeting.
That demonstration had been planned in part by the group Maricopa Citizens for Safety and Accountability, which was trying to get placed on the board's agenda at the time to discuss Sheriff Joe's misplaced priorities. The protesters were irked that a county "Pet of the Month" could get on the agenda, but not their group.
In another particularly egregious incident, four members of the group ACORN were arrested by MCSO deputies at a Board of Supervisors meeting after they applauded a speaker. (Two of them, Monica Sandschafer and Kristy Theilen, had been arrested at the earlier demonstration as well.)
That's right, they were arrested, booked, and spent 10 or 12 hours in jail for clapping. Another rogue clapper, MCSA organizer Raquel Teran, was later cited.
In all cases, charges were either dismissed or the defendants acquitted. In the clapping case, Justice of the Peace C. Steven McMurry wrote an order criticizing both the MCSO and the County Attorney's office under Andrew Thomas.
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Jason Odhner, one of defendants in the clapping case, settled for $75,000. At the time he was arrested, he was studying to be a nurse. He recalled how the charges against him interrupted his career.
"Arpaio gave me one scary night [in jail]," he said. "But I wasn't able to get my nursing license and was unemployed for six months because I was facing criminal charges. [Andrew] Thomas moved forward with a case he knew had no merit."
Asked if he was pleased with the outcome, Odhner confessed to mixed emotions.
"It's a weird thing, this idea that it can all be reduced to an economic transaction," he replied. "I'm not under any illusion that we've created real accountability. Because we've seen again and again that getting sued repeatedly is not a disincentive to the sheriff's department."