Feathered Bastard

Joe Arpaio Sued by U.S. Department of Justice: What Took the Feds So Long?

After more than a year and a-half of investigation, requests for documents and access, and threats and deadlines, the U.S. Department of Justice has at last, reluctantly, taken some action and sued Sheriff Joe Arpaio in federal court to force him to cooperate with its civil rights probe of his office.

Of course, by now you'd think they had enough on him to sue for civil rights violations. But I guess we'll have to wait another couple of years for that to happen. In the meantime, what we get is basically a trumped-up public records request.

The DOJ investigation, which began with a letter to Arpaio from the feds in March of 2009, is looking into allegations of ethnic and racial profiling arising from Arpaio's anti-immigrant dragnets, as well as discrimination in Joe's jails against those with limited English language skills.

As is outlined in detail in the complaint, which you can read, here, the sheriff's office at first partially complied with some of the DOJ's requests, but by May 2009, the MCSO was in full stonewall mode, informing the feds that they could take a hike up Camelback Mountain.

In July of 2009, Arpaio went so far as to hold a press conference to thumb his schnoz at the DOJ and publicly state that his agency would not cooperate.

See, the MCSO is required by law to cooperate with the feds' inquiry under the auspices of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which "prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs receiving federal financial assistance," according to the DOJ's Web site.

Federal funds come with strings attached, and when an entity accepts such funds, its representatives sign contractual assurances that it will comply with the requirements of Title VI. 

"The assurances signed by Maricopa County bind subsequent recipients and subgrantees, including MCSO, to whom Maricopa County distributes the funds," states the feds' suit.

As I reported in a previous blog item, Maricopa County spokeswoman Cari Gerchick says the county receives $113 million in federal funds, which includes $50 million that go to health care programs. (The sheriff's office gets $3.8 million of the $113 million total, according to the county.) This money would be in jeopardy should the MCSO not comply.

Which is why Maricopa County recently offered its subpoena power to the feds as a tool to make the MCSO fork over the requested docs. The feds also want access to MCSO facilities and staff.

But Arpaio and his pricey D.C. attorney Robert Driscoll have blocked the feds at every turn. When the DOJ advised the MCSO it was in non-compliance with the investigation at the beginning of August, DOJ lawyers gave the MCSO until August 17 to comply.

That passed, and the feds blinked, allowing for a face-to-face meet between the DOJ and Driscoll. But Driscoll ultimately told the feds that the MCSO would only give them what it thought they should have.

"The United States has determined that all administrative requirements have been exhausted," reads the complaint, "and securing compliance from Defendants cannot be achieved by voluntary means."

Hence this way-tardy lawsuit. 

The DOJ's press release on the action asserts that this is the first time in 30 years that a police or sheriff's department has refused to cooperate with a DOJ investigation.

"The actions of the sheriff's office are unprecedented," Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez claimed in the DOJ release. "It is unfortunate that the department was forced to resort to litigation to gain access to public documents and facilities."

This outcome was, of course, inevitable. I could have told the feds this last year, which is when the DOJ should have sued him. 

Also, Perez is dead wrong that this is "unprecedented." Only in recent history could you say that. Go back to the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Era. Mississippi Burning should be the DOJ's blueprint for action. Not the cozy relationships they've had of late with local law enforcement.

Moreover, the feds continue to allow Arpaio to have 287(g) immigration authority in his jails. Why? Is the Department of Homeland Security's hunger for brown bodies to deport such that it has to team up with a department the DOJ is suing and has a federal grand jury open on? 

The DOJ needs to stop burning daylight and secure some indictments of Arpaio and/or his underlings in the criminal inquiry. Once Arpaio's boy Bill Montgomery takes over the Maricopa County Attorney's office after the general election, there will be no check on Arpaio's power. 

Some federal indictments, however, would once more box then MCSO in. If the DOJ wants points for today's meager, belated act, they get none from me. Not until we see Joe Arpaio and/or his Chief Deputy David Hendershott doing the perp walk.

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