Joe Arpaio's Phoniness Finally Turning True Believers Into Foes | Phoenix New Times

Stephen Lemons Column

Joe Arpaio's Phony Reputation Finally Turns True Believers Into Foes

One of the more insightful passages in former MCSO Executive Chief Brian Sands' book about his old boss, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, deals with Joe's long-fostered image as an avuncular Dr. Dolittle with a badge. Whether its ginning up bogus animal-cruelty cases against Maricopa County residents or taking celebrity Pam Anderson...
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Please see an update to this story below.

One of the more insightful passages in former MCSO Executive Chief Brian Sands' book about his old boss, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, deals with Joe's long-fostered image as an avuncular Dr. Dolittle with a badge.

Whether its ginning up bogus animal-cruelty cases against Maricopa County residents or taking celebrity Pam Anderson on a tour of his jails to celebrate the newly vegetarian slop he's feeding prisoners, Arpaio revels in his role as defender of four-legged beasts. And the public, generally, gobbles up this pro-Joe propaganda without question.

(Which is why Arpaio hoofed it all the way to Tonapah last night for a puppy mill bust by his agency. You'd have thought Arpaio cracked the Mexican cartels, the way the MCSO promoted the story.)

But in Arpaio De Facto Lawman, Sands, who left the MCSO in 2013 after 30 years with the agency, observes that, as always, Arpaio's  motives are cynical.

"Arpaio once told me that the aggressive animal-abuse image he developed was a political goldmine, as it brought . . . a number of Democrats into his base," Sands writes, adding, "I would hear people say they were against Arpaio, but because he defended animals, he was great."

Actually, the sheriff's affection for animals extended no further than staged photo-ops, Sands claims. He writes that he would tease Arpaio about his not having a pet.

"One day, I asked him why he did not own a dog, and he ignored me," states Sands in his book. "I further said it would be good public relations to have him adopt. Arpaio flatly told me to 'shut up.' He never did obtain a pet."

It's a curious fact, one that Arpaio's top flack, Lisa Allen, does not dispute.

However, Allen says Arpaio and his wife, Ava, "have had dogs almost their entire lives, even as they moved around the world," but that they have "agreed they should not own a dog now due to security issues."

Security issues? Maybe Arpaio figures the dog would bite him. They are good judges of character.

Scott Powelson, formerly a member of the MCSO's now-defunct Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Posse, backed up Sands' view when I spoke to him.

"He always claims to love animals, right?" Powelson says of Arpaio. "But if you try to get him to adopt one and take one home, you ought to see the look you get. He wants nothing to do with those animals personally."

Marsha Hill, a friend of Powelson's, used to be commander of the PCA posse. She claims Arpaio's distaste for critters extends from the canine to the equine.

She recalled one incident in which Arpaio attended a fundraiser for therapeutic horseback riding held by a friend of hers. Hill and others suggested that they get a snapshot of Arpaio on a horse. Arpaio said nay.

"I've never been on a horse, and I'll never get on a horse," she says he told her.

"How can you live in Arizona and not have been on a horse?" she wonders.

Still, Hill once was a fan of Arpaio's for his work with animals and his general "America's toughest sheriff" act.

She, Powelson, and a mutual friend, R.J. Morris, lived in Orange County, California, and ran in Republican circles, where they bumped into Arpaio as the sheriff stumped for a candidate they liked.

Indeed, they were so enthusiastic about Joe that, in 2013, they formed what they called the Maricopa County Sheriff's Support Council, later renamed Sheriff Joe's Legacy.

It's mission was to act as a booster organization for the MCSO and help the office purchase things it needed. The group's website ( still is up, though not for long, according to Hill.

Marsha Hill's Notice of Claim to Maricopa County
Marsha Hill's Notice of Claim to Maricopa County

The site reads like Arpaio campaign material, referring to the sheriff as "a dynamo" and "common sense incarnate."

Given such sentiments, is it any surprise that the three friends decided to transplant to Wickenburg?

"This is why we moved from Southern California to Arizona," she says. "Because we had gotten to know Sheriff Joe over a period of years. We liked what he did on Tent City. We loved what he did with the animals. We wanted to be part of it."

Yet after just a few years, Hill and her friends U-turned on Arpaio, and Hill, with the help of Phoenix attorney Jack Wilenchik, has filed a notice of claim with Maricopa County, threatening a lawsuit against Arpaio and the county unless the claim is settled for $500,000.

In September 2013, Hill became commander of the PCA posse, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to promoting animal welfare and to helping the MCSO's two Maricopa Animal Safe Haven units, no-kill animal shelters that take care of animals abused or neglected by their owners.

The posse held successful fundraisers with the help of Arpaio, and the organization regularly paid various expenses for the MASH units. As Hill tells it, a MASH unit submitted bills, and PCA paid vendors directly.

For the harassment and retaliation she has received at the hands of the MCSO, former posse commander Marsha Hill is threatening a lawsuit against the county.

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But in December 2013, Hill received a letter from MCSO Deputy Chief Brian Lee asking for $200,000, which was most of the money in PCA's bank account. Lee stated that the MASH program would use the cash to pay for vet bills.

PCA's attorney responded to Lee with a letter telling the Arpaio commander that to stay in compliance with IRS regulations, PCA could not just hand over $200K without an accounting of the money. Lee was invited to submit the veterinary bills to PCA's board, as had been done in the past.

That's when Hill saw a different side of Sheriff Joe's MCSO. She says she started receiving phone calls from Sergeant Buddy Acritelli informing her that she was the subject of an internal investigation and was getting placed on leave as a posse member.

Ultimately, the MCSO canned her and turned over the investigation to Arpaio's ally, then-Attorney General Tom Horne. According to Hill's notice of claim letter, an AG's investigator began contacting people believed to have donated to PCA, telling them that their contributions possibly were being misused.

Meanwhile, PCA's board of directors voted to sever ties with the MCSO, renaming the organization Alliance for Arizona Animal Protection. The money stayed with the new nonprofit.

The MCSO wasn't shy about mentioning the AG's supposed investigation publicly in statements to the local press.

In one, Allen said Hill "may be under the impression that that money is her money."

This incensed Hill, who insists that her organization has been a good steward of the funds. Perhaps too good. After all, if she had just let Lee raid their bank account, all would have been well.

"This has cost me two years of my life and thousands of dollars defending against their accusations," she says, adding that the MCSO's bullying of PCA members caused all but a few to quit.

PCA was part of the MCSO's larger posse program, which includes specialized units. And overall, the larger posse program has been in trouble.

At last count, it was down to fewer than 1,000 members — nothing like in its glory days, when the Sheriff's Office claimed it had 3,000 members. 

Certainly, stories such as Hill's — along with Arpaio's siccing Horne on people who used to be loyal members of the sheriff's political base — can't help the situation.

As this column went to press, the AG's Office, which is under new leadership, said it would look into Hill's case and get back to me.

Sands, one of Arpaio's co-defendants in the sheriff's civil contempt trial, noted in his book that, to Arpaio, the posse was always a source of political power, a way to harness his followers.

Hill's cautionary tale should speak to anyone enamored of the sheriff. His shtick as a lawman who's tough on crime and immigrants but a defender of animals is just a means to an end. Ditto the posse and the old Arpaio charm.

You could be the biggest believer in the Arpaio magic, but if you fail to obey — or oppose him in any way — you could find yourself under investigation, accused, and possibly perp-walked, like so many have been before.

Update 11/18/2015 9:19 a.m.: AG Office spokeswoman Mia Garcia got back to me this morning with a copy of a June letter from the AG's Office to the MCSO declining prosecution on Hill.

Some folks try to tell me that the regime change at the AG's office from Tom Horne to Mark Brnovich makes no difference, because both are Republicans. But Horne was beholden to Arpaio in 2014. Brnovich is not. And that is a very big deal.

June 2015 Letter from the AG's Office to MCSO, Declining Prosecution
June 2015 Letter from the AG's Office to MCSO, Declining Prosecution

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