Longform

Money Shot

Sheriff Joe Arpaio has long maintained that he's accountable to the people — but the people's accountants are a different story.

After 15 years in the job, Arpaio has yet to endure a comprehensive audit of his office's finances. Limited audits examining Arpaio's payroll, his travel policies and the county's jail enhancement funds have found plenty of problems. But despite that, and even though the sheriff's $241 million budget is the biggest in the county, Maricopa County supervisors have failed to order a look at the bigger picture.

Compounding the problem, issues identified in the limited audits have been virtually ignored by the Sheriff's Office.

Consider overtime. This fall, the county revealed that Arpaio spent nearly $2 million more on overtime in the fiscal year's first quarter than he had been allotted for the entire year. That spending binge, the county manager concluded, was "not sustainable."

Arpaio's solution was drastic: He stopped transporting prisoners to court hearings. Forty-six inmates never made it to court on November 6 — even though getting defendants to hearings is one job the sheriff must do under state law. (Suffice it to say that rounding up illegal immigrants and sheltering abused animals are not state mandates, but Arpaio has yet to run out of money for either venture.)

Judges and defense lawyers erupted over the plan, and Arpaio was forced to backpedal, blaming the lack of transports on miscommunication. But his next cost-cutting solution was no less controversial. Arpaio announced that jail visiting time would be limited to the hours of 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Again, the court fell into chaos, and now, Arpaio faces a lawsuit from attorneys unable to meet with their clients. Though the sheriff lost round one, he's appealing — which, observers note, is hardly the way to save money.

But the most stunning thing about Arpaio's budget problems isn't that he overspent so badly. It isn't even his cockeyed remedy for his financial woes.

The real shocker is that it took this long for overtime to become an issue.

A New Times analysis of financial records show that overtime has been a huge problem for Arpaio for years. Even as the county increased the sheriff's overtime budget by 85 percent over the last four years, Arpaio has continued to exceed the amount he has been allocated. In fact, in the last four years, the sheriff's expenditures on overtime have increased 635 percent.

In the 2004 fiscal year, Arpaio spent twice the amount budgeted for overtime. In 2005, he spent more than four times what the county had allotted — overspending by $6.6 million. Last year, Arpaio set a new record: He overshot his overtime budget by a whopping $10.4 million.

In May, the county completed a 25-page audit of the sheriff's payroll. That report outlined the overtime problem, making specific recommendations to fix the root causes.

The auditors did not suggest slashing jail hours. Or stopping inmate transport. Instead, they pointed out "a need for better management." That, clearly, was a suggestion Arpaio wasn't willing to emulate, and his overtime spending continued to swell until it reached crisis proportions six months later.

Such stonewalling has been a pattern when it comes to the sheriff. During his 15 years in office, Arpaio has endured investigations, lawsuits, and audits. He's cost Maricopa County taxpayers $41.4 million solely in legal fees, insurance premiums, and payouts to the people who've sued him. His budget has doubled, his jails have been condemned by the U.S. Department of Justice, and he has never faced an audit that didn't reveal genuine problems.

Those things, of course, pale next to the list of people who have died in Arpaio's jails: people awaiting trial who were denied proper medical care or who were abused or ignored by guards. Law enforcement officials and lawyers believe that records on inmate deaths have been destroyed and criminal investigations into those deaths thwarted.

But Arpaio, the Teflon prince of Maricopa County, has outmaneuvered everyone who's attempted to hold him accountable.


In 1995, the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating conditions in Joe Arpaio's jails after receiving a complaint about excessive force. Civil rights investigators announced that they would be looking at a litany of serious allegations: physical abuse of inmates by staff, false reporting regarding use of force, denial of access to counsel, and inadequate medical care.

When the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the sheriff a year later, the suit confirmed many of the original allegations. But, unbelievably, then-U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano appeared at a press conference with Arpaio and attempted to convince reporters that Arpaio had actually been exonerated. Napolitano even described the lawsuit as a "technicality."

The actual suit, of course, says nothing of the kind. Instead, it alleges that Sheriff's Office brass had "been consciously aware of, but deliberately indifferent to" excessive and improper use of force by jail employees. "Such conduct and practices have and will cause inmates confined in this jail irreparable harm," the Justice Department concluded.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske