Secret Recording: Joe Arpaio Tells Employees Tent City Is 'Gonna Stay' Because 'I Run This Organization'

When Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is under oath, in a deposition or during a trial, he invariably describes his management style in Reaganesque terms, asserting that he delegates the responsibilities of his office to underlings. This allows Arpaio to pass the proverbial buck to subordinates, keeping the sheriff insulated, in most cases, from legal consequence.

But when Arpaio is not under oath, he is the undisputed jefe, the "shurf," the top shot caller, whose word is law to the MCSO's more than 3,000 deputies, detention officers, and staff, not to mention the thousands of inmates in his custody on any given day.

Case in point: two audio clips from a recording of a ceremony Wednesday at the MCSO's training facility to honor employees of the quarter from every department. Arpaio was on hand to congratulate the winners, and he prattled on for about 45 minutes before a captive audience of about 100.

An attendee who asked not to be named taped most of Arpaio's informal address and made it available to New Times. And while most of the recording is full of Arpaio's standard blather, Arpaio made reference to a recent controversy over a decision not to close Tent City, making sure that those present knew that he is the one who made the call to keep the infamous open-air detention facility operational.

"The tents are there," Arpaio says at one point. "And they're gonna stay there. I don't care what you hear, what garbage is circulating. I am the sheriff. I run this organization."

He goes on: "So when you hear some rumors going around, especially this time of year. I would hope that sometimes you try to ask your supervisor what the real story is, whether it's true or not, and that type of thing."

Last week New Times published a story about an anonymous letter of no-confidence sent to Arpaio and signed by "MCSO Employees who do the right thing." The letter alleges that when Arpaio had to come up with $8 million from the MCSO's budget to help cover legal fees and compliance costs in the civil-rights case Melendres v. Arpaio, the sheriff refused to close Tent City, which is less than half full, and move the inmates and detention officers inside the jails, where there's plenty of bed space.

Instead, Arpaio nixed a retention plan for detention officers that would have involved a pay raise, netting the MCSO $4.7 million of the $8 million needed. Though the MCSO was not very forthcoming to my inquiries regarding the letter, the Arizona Republic scored some significant details from Arpaio's chief deputy, Jerry Sheridan, including the fact that the MCSO's special response team, which is supposed to handle the most dangerous inmates in custody, was eliminated to help pay the balance of that $8 million tab.

The elimination of the SRT is particularly egregious, considering that it involved a squad of highly trained officers to transport members of the Mexican Mafia, among other criminals. According to several sources, the SRT's presence ensured the safety of officers and prisoners alike, and the $1 million the team cost the county is a pittance compared to the money and lives it saves.

Listen to Arpaio Talk about Keeping Tent city Open

Arpaio: "I am the sheriff. I run this organization."

As for Tent City, in an interview with the Republic, Sheridan denied that political necessity had anything to do with the decision, despite Tent City being one of Arpaio's perennial selling points to the public, and despite Arpaio's first TV ad of his re-election effort being about — you guessed it — Tent City, with Arpaio repeating the shibboleth that Tent City has saved taxpayers "millions."

The chief deputy — who along with Arpaio has been found guilty of civil contempt and referred for criminal contempt prosecution by federal Judge G. Murray Snow, the judge in the Melendres case — made it seem like closing Tent City would be a "rash, snap decision," and that he would prefer that a "staff study" be done first. He also made it seem as if it was a collective decision of the upper brass.

But Arpaio's statements on Wednesday belie all that. According to my sources, Arpaio also mocked the no-confidence letter, calling it the work of disgruntled employees, without acknowledging they might have something to be disgruntled about.

During his 45-minute spiel, Arpaio invited those present to come around and visit him at the MCSO's new headquarters and maybe even get a photo with him. He also joked that it might be a good idea to arm the civilian staff in his employ, so as to make it easier to get them raises. 

At one point, Arpaio claimed that none of the nearly $50 million spent so far on Melendres comes out of the MCSO's budget — a ludicrous statement, given that some of the people he's speaking to are detention officers who have just been denied a pay raise because the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors finally demanded that the MCSO cough up some of the money to pay for reforms mandated by the court in Melendres.

Melendres is unlike other civil suits against the county, in that it isn't covered by the county's self-insurance fund, often referred to simply as "risk management." That pool of money covers claims where a plaintiff is seeking damages for, say, injuries or a wrongful death. It does not cover a claim like Melendres, in which the plaintiffs sought remedies to racial profiling. The cash for Melendres comes out of the county's general fund and could be spent on other things, like, a new building, someone's salary, or a raise in pay for detention officers.

At another point in his monologue on Wednesday, Arpaio minimized the loss of a possible pay raise for his employees, telling them, "Let's not go blaming certain lawsuits," and he promised that he and the chief deputy would work hard to get them an increase someday down the line. He also noted that the starting salary for a detention officer is about $40,000.

"[That's] not bad if you're an 18-year old," he said. "Better than sloppin' hamburgers."

Listen to Arpaio Downplay No Pay Raises for Detention Officers

Arpaio: "Better than sloppin' hamburgers."

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