Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu's CD1 Campaign Is Haunted by His Tenure as Headmaster of Troubled DeSisto School for Teens | Phoenix New Times

Stephen Lemons Column

Paul Babeu's Tenure as DeSisto School Headmaster Haunts His CD1 Campaign

Perhaps the only thing that can halt Pinal County’s ethically challenged sheriff, Paul Babeu, from winning the Republican primary for Arizona’s First Congressional District is a concentrated campaign of political carpet bombing. By carpet bombing, I mean a deluge of robocalls, mailers, and/or TV ads aimed at bringing voters up...
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Perhaps the only thing that can halt Pinal County’s ethically challenged sheriff, Paul Babeu, from winning the Republican primary for Arizona’s First Congressional District is a concentrated campaign of political carpet bombing.

By carpet bombing, I mean a deluge of robocalls, mailers, and/or TV ads aimed at bringing voters up to speed on Babeu’s scandalous history: from his raunchy profile on the pornographic gay pickup site, to his allegedly threatening to have his undocumented ex-boyfriend deported if the man didn’t keep mum about Babeu’s sexuality, to his time as headmaster and executive director of the notorious DeSisto School for wayward teens in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which was shuttered in 2004 after a state investigation revealed a litany of abuses toward minors in the school’s care.

If his opponents drop such a payload, it just might keep Babeu, the slickest politician alive in Arizona, out of the U.S. Congress. The first two scandals mentioned above, exposed by New Times in 2012, were responsible for ending Babeu’s primary bid that year in the heavily Republican Fourth Congressional District. Babeu was forced to retreat and run again for sheriff of Pinal County, a contest he handily won.

Now, Babeu is running for the seat left open by departing Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, and CD1 watchers anticipate that sorties of truth aimed at Babeu, likely financed by a political-action committee, or some dark-money group, will commence around the first week of August, when early voting begins and Arizona households receive their mail-in ballots.

Granted, there are no guarantees. Even a fusillade of damning details from Babeu’s career in politics may not be enough. Babeu is one of six candidates in the GOP primary, and the crowded field means he hypothetically could win with a plurality of 20 percent. (A seventh contender, Carlyle Begay, recently dropped out, throwing his support behind the sheriff.) On name recognition alone, Babeu may be able to garner 20 or 30 percent of the vote in CD1, a good chunk of which is located in Pinal County.

If any skeleton in Babeu’s crowded closet has the potential haunt him out of the race, it’s the scandal involving his time at DeSisto.

So far, the only GOP candidate in CD1 with the stones to bring it up has been retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Wendy Rogers. That she did so helps to explain why two of the sheriff’s estranged siblings, Lucy Babeu and Veronica Keating, recently came forward to endorse Rogers in the primary. Both sisters told New Times last week that Rogers’ willingness to attack Babeu was a factor in the decision to back her.

Despite protestations to the contrary, Babeu likely knew about at least some of the abusive practices at DeSisto, where he served as headmaster and executive director from 1999 to 2001. He has never been able to shake that accusation completely, and Lucy made it an issue again this year when she provided ABC 15 with a video of a 1999 Babeu family get-together. In it, Babeu describes what goes on at DeSisto and argues that the measures are justified.

Some of the practices Babeu mentions in the video were subsequently condemned in a 2001 court filing by the Massachusetts Office of Child Care Services. The filing described a plethora of torture-like tactics employed at the school, from forced farm labor to group showers to something called “cornering,” in which students were made to sit in a corner with no human interaction for “up to months at a time.”

In justifying DeSisto’s harsh methods, Babeu is seen in the video observing that the troubled students “need to feel hopeless and feel depression and complete failure.” 
The court filing reported that DeSisto’s student body at the time consisted of “substantially over 30 percent” special-needs students, who suffered from a range of behavioral and psychological problems including depression, bipolar disorder, bulimia, drug and alcohol abuse, learning disabilities, and paranoid schizophrenia, among others. 

The document describes discipline at the school as “overly punitive and dangerous” and notes that students were “routinely denied their basic human rights” through “strip searches, denial of permission to use bathroom facilities in private, and denial of all means of communication with family members.”

Babeu’s remarks in the home video belie the demurrals expressed in a 2012 letter from Babeu’s lawyers to ABC 15, which was the first to air the DeSisto allegations. In the letter, attorneys claimed Babeu never was “involved in, responsible for, and/or aware of the mistreatment of students” at DeSisto.

Fast-forward to a February 2016 candidates’ forum, at which Rogers challenged Babeu on the contents of the video from Lucy and the “allegations of child abuse.”

Babeu replied that he would never allow such abuse, telling the audience in a childish tone, “Nobody was arrested. Nobody was charged or convicted of anything.” He went on to rationalize the horrific treatment of students at the school, claiming that many of them had “criminal records” and had “attacked their own parents.”

Unsatisfied with the answers, Rogers persisted in her interrogation of her rival, drawing boos from the Republican audience.

At different points in his career, Babeu referred to his leadership of DeSisto as evidence of his competence or did his best to keep it at arm’s length.

In 2001, when Babeu, then 32, was running for mayor of North Adams, Massachusetts, for the second time against incumbent John Barrett, he regularly cited his role at DeSisto as one to be proud of. Video of a debate with Barrett in October 2001 at an American Legion hall in North Adams, for instance, shows Babeu touting his experience as “headmaster and executive director of the DeSisto School,” calling himself “the man in charge of a private school” who knew how to fix the city’s educational system.

When Barrett scoffed that DeSisto was anything but a private school with high academic standards — “I heard it was just a check to get in,” the mayor said, a reference to fees that could reach $65,000 or more — Babeu shot back, “I take that as an insult to the children that are there. They are above average intelligence, Mr. Mayor.” 

Intelligent enough, apparently, to “need to feel hopeless and feel depression and complete failure.”

The school’s founder, Michael DeSisto, endorsed Babeu’s candidacy that year. In an interview with the Berkshire Eagle, considered the paper of record in western Massachusetts, DeSisto lavished praise on Babeu, saying he “desperately” wanted Babeu back at the school, and describing how he’d recruited Babeu for the position of headmaster, then named him executive director. The paper noted that Babeu was the first person to serve as executive director after DeSisto left that post. The two men embraced during a press conference, according to the article, and Babeu referred to DeSisto as his “dear friend” and “mentor.”

Endorsement notwithstanding, Babeu went down to defeat a second time. He then relocated to Arizona, where he used his DeSisto experience on his December 2002 application to the Chandler Police Department, noting that he’d “supervised directors and 80 full-time employees” at the school and tended to “legal issues.”

As his direct supervisor at the school, he listed Michael DeSisto.

Squirm though he might, Babeu is inextricably linked to the DeSisto School and what went on there.

That, along with the other unsavory episodes that pock his professional career and personal life, ought to disqualify him from becoming a Congressman.

But only if enough voters hear about it.

Otherwise, like a real-life Mack the Knife, Babeu will slink off with a primary win, and we’ll have to depend on the Democrats to take him out in the general election — never a reassuring thought in this state, even in a district split down the middle along party lines like CD1.

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