At a meeting this morning, county supervisors voted unanimously to curtail Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's access to county credit cards -- putting a $200 per-purchase limit on cards issued to the Sheriff's Office after the sheriff refused to cooperate with a routine audit.
But, at the meeting, County Manager David Smith quietly dropped a bombshell about an unrelated matter. He revealed that a Department of Labor investigation into practices at Arpaio's jails has concluded -- and that Arpaio's poor management has now put county taxpayers on the hook for another $2 million.
Since August, 2009, the Department of Labor had been investigating whether Arpaio was illegally, and systematically, refusing to compensate detention officers for overtime.
It appears that was in fact the case: Thanks to Labor's intervention, the county will be forced to make good with a total of 1,900 detention officers. They'll receive back pay for the work in their next paycheck, Smith said.
"That's a $2 million expense not in the budget that we have to cover before the end of the fiscal year," Smith told supervisors.
And it's hard to argue it's not directly related to Arpaio's bad management. County administrators say the Sheriff's Office became aware of the problem in February, 2009. But they did nothing to address the problem until July -- when the county's in-house legal counsel learned of the issue and began to push for action. At that point, then-chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Max Wilson, asked for the Labor Department to investigate, and intervene if necessary.
Smith's revelation that the investigation has now concluded was just one more piece of evidence regarding poor management and uncontrolled spending at the Sheriff's Office. The supervisors' private counsel, Tom Irvine, suggested earlier this week that Arpaio may have misspent as much as $50 million.
Adding insult to injury, the sheriff has refused to cooperate with a county-wide audit into use of county credit cards, known internally as P-cards. The supervisors are now concerned that his refusal to turn over records of credit card purchase may conceal serious misspending.
And so, at Irvine's advice, the board voted today to limit all MCSO purchases on the card to $200 or less.
If the sheriff wants to spend more than that on any single transaction, he will be required to get permission from County Manager Smith.
Smith said the crackdown on the credit cards is directly related to the sheriff's refusal to cooperate with the audit.
"This could be washed away in a single afternoon by [the sheriff] simply releasing the info," Smith told the supervisors.
He noted that county administrators simply have no way of knowing whether the cards are being abused.
"Where is the smoking gun?" he asked. "The smoking gun is the refusal of access to the data. What's management left to do? Throw up our hands and say 'Oh well? We're sure we'll luck out and all 3,000 employees of the Sheriff's Office are honest 100 percent of the time'?
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"I don't want to live that way," he added, "and I'm sure none of you do either."
The sheriff had hired its go-to law firm, Ogletree Deakins, to attempt to block this morning's meeting. But a Pima County Superior Court Judge denied the request, clearing the way for the supervisors' unanimous vote.
The Sheriff's Office is the largest county department, in terms of both budget and personnel, noted Supervisor Andy Kunasek.
"To have the big question mark about what's going on with spending over there is not acceptable," Kunasek said.