Paul Babeu: Joe Arpaio Knew Nothing About Misconduct Involving Top Deputies, But Allowed Bad Behavior to "Evolve"

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said today that he's convinced his Maricopa counterpart, Joe Arpaio, knew absolutely nothing about the misconduct of his top deputies.

Babeu, speaking at a news conference at the state Capitol, said the investigation his office conducted on Arpaio's commanders proved numerous, serious instances of misconduct and ethical violations. Arpaio's office today released part of a long-awaited report on the investigation, though it turned out the 1,022-page document didn't contain the investigators' conclusions.

Last week, the office released part of the conclusions about Hendershott. As we mentioned in our blog post about that release, the investigation concluded that Arpaio's now-fired chief deputy, Dave Hendershott, among many other things, tried to bully underlings into spying on Arpaio's political opponents and once spent $18,000 in posse money on his kid's baseball team and a family trip to Alaska. 

Yet Arpaio had no idea what was going on under his nose, according to the Pinal County sheriff. The reason, Babeu said, was because Arpaio had allowed himself to be insulated by his former chief deputy.

"This is a case of the gatekeepers becoming too powerful," Babeu said. "[Arpaio] only gets the information that's filtered through Hendershott."

In some cases, some of Arpaio's commanders went directly to Arpaio with complaints about Hendershott. But Arpaio trusted his chief deputy so much, Babeu explained, that he believed Hendershott's excuses and explanations.

"The sheriff always had conflicting information," Babeu said. "I believe he was deceived."

It's an interesting theory, but not one that we're buying. 

In an earlier news conference today, Arpaio admitted he "made mistakes," was too trusting of his top aides and was "overly tolerant" of Hendershott's gruff style, which his staff members perceived as intimidating. He's bringing in an outside consulting firm to help make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

But remember -- Arpaio plans on running for re-election next year. No doubt, he figures that if he plays his cards right, fires a couple of people, sticks to the story that he knew nothing, and keeps arresting illegal immigrants, his supporters will still love him.

Plus, possible criminal indictments await Arpaio's former top men, especially in regard to the campaign-finance scandal known as the SCA, which we covered last month in an in-depth article. It makes sense that Arpaio, a highly skilled politician who's won five elections, would deny he knew of wrongdoing on the part of his commanders. 

Babeu, of course, is a highly ambitious politician in his own right. He never made Arpaio a target of the investigation, and he was careful not to criticize Arpaio too much in today's news conference.

Our theory: Follow the money. Arpaio's got a gravy train of political contributions and can pull in money from supporters nationwide. He frequently uses this power to prop up the politicians he likes. Babeu had an incentive to not run roughshod over Arpaio, because Arpaio might get pissed at him and ask people to support whoever runs against Babeu.

That being said, the six-month investigation into the allegations by one of Arpaio's deputy chiefs, Frank Munnell, was certainly thorough in its examination of Hendershott, now-fired Deputy Chief Larry Black and Captain Joel Fox. We'll continue to look into the many hundreds of pages of documents expected to be released over the coming days.

Upon questioning from the news media, Babeu admitted he wouldn't have run his office like Arpaio did, that Arpaio "allowed" these dynamics to evolve to this degree, and that "common sense" would dictate that Arpaio should have looked more into allegations about his top aides, he said.

The latter statement touches on our most serious doubts about this "I-knew-nothing" stance of Arpaio's. An ethical, rational leader would have explored the allegations of favoritism and possible crimes, rumors of which Arpaio almost certainly would have heard.

For example, in the secret recording made by Munnell of a 2009 staff meeting, Arpaio knows that his top aide and a member of his trusted "inner circle," Black, is having a serious dispute with Munnell over the SCA (or Sheriff's Command Association) money, a slush fund of contributions by his top deputies and wealthy friends or supporters of Arpaio. A New Times article about the SCA scandal, which Arpaio surely read, had just been published, and the deputies were arguing about it. Munnell was ticked because the article mentioned how he had donated to the fund and was now getting asked about it by criminal investigators.

The secret recording reveals a seemingly intentional ignoring of the situation by Arpaio. Here's an excerpt from our March 25 blog post on the recording:

When Munnell tells him he was talking about that "stupid fund thing," Arpaio responds curtly.

"You didn't donate to me," Arpaio says.

Munnell says the donation was to "support" Arpaio.

"That's bullshit," says Arpaio. "I don't know nothing about this shit. We having a staff meeting?"

And here's an excerpt from our April blog post about the SCA investigative report released by the state Attorney General's Office, which also seems to imply Arpaio must have known something:

In the months before the election, Hendershott took "weeks" off from work to focus on Arpaio's campaign, which he considered "God's work," according to retired Maricopa Captain Jim Miller, who was interviewed by the FBI.

Miller told investigators that, before the anti-Saban ad was run, Black spent a great deal of time working on it in Arpaio's 19th-floor "video room."

Miller also confessed that it was "common talk/knowledge" around the office that the shady SCA fund "was the method used to 'fund the hit piece on Saban,'" the report states.

If it was common knowledge, then Arpaio had heard the rumor, too -- and did nothing about it. One theory -- Babeu's -- is that he was too trusting of his staff. But maybe Arpaio did nothing about the rumor of shady campaign work because he felt it would benefit him.

We asked Arpaio today why he didn't immediately order an internal investigation into Fox's activities when the news about the SCA fund first broke back in October of 2008. His face grew stiff, and he said he would make no comment about the SCA.

We also wonder whether Arpaio was complicit in allowing Hendershott to take "weeks" off work before the election to work on his campaign. Possibly Hendershott saved up his vacation time all year so he could dedicate it to his boss. But we also know Hendershott liked to go on vacations. Arpaio should reveal to the public what he knows of Hendershott's work on his campaign, and whether county resources (such as the chief deputy's time) were abused.

It's unclear what else Arpaio will say about the Munnell Memo investigation, if anything. He's, you know -- moving on.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.

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