'Tis the season of paybacks, desperation and fear at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio is doling out promotions and sweet assignments to his supporters and harsh retribution to anyone who's dared question his corrupt regime.
The shuffling of more than 150 deputies and detention officers to new posts in the aftermath of the November election is one way Arpaio has thrown a bone to his loyal supporters while penalizing those considered dissidents.
"It's being made to look like it's for the good of the office, but that is just a bunch of bull," says Chris Gerberry, president of the Maricopa County Deputies/Detention Officer Association. The union has several hundred members seeking higher wages and better working conditions inside the nation's fourth largest jail system.
Gerberry tells me that Arpaio is targeting employees who supported one of his political rivals in the 2004 elections for reassignment to less favorable positions.
"This is flat-out punishment," he says.
One of the beneficiaries of Arpaio's largess is public information officer and former sergeant Paul Chagolla, who now carries the title of lieutenant. Chagolla's recent promotion certainly did not occur because he is among MCSO's brightest.
But there is no doubt he's loyal to Arpaio. And that's all that matters at the MCSO. After I wrote a lengthy feature story last June detailing Arpaio's numerous abuses of power, Chagolla and others in MCSO's public affairs office refused for more than three months to respond to my formal written requests for public documents.
Chagolla's boss, Lisa Allen MacPherson, says she was mad at New Times for writing negative articles about the sheriff and therefore she was going to ignore the state's public records law and simply refuse to respond to my requests to review MCSO records.
"You are not a legitimate newspaper," MacPherson explains as the reason for trashing my requests for public records. She also called me a liar.
The public records law does not have a litmus test for newspapers, or, for that matter, any person seeking to review public records. But such legal details matter little to MacPherson, who dutifully ignores state law as if that would protect her boss from negative press.
Arpaio was particularly irritated because I had been investigating a commercial real estate business he owns with his wife, Eva. The venture has accumulated at least $2 million in commercial and residential real estate in Maricopa County, and possibly much more.
It's impossible to know how much property Arpaio owns because many of his commercial real estate records have been sealed under a court order that is designed to protect police, judges and public defenders from public disclosure of their home addresses.
Arpaio doesn't just want his home address -- which is readily available from numerous public sources -- sealed. He has extended the confidentiality provision to include records related to more than half a dozen commercial real estate projects. These normally public records, including deeds, affidavits of value and liens, have been removed from the public file at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office.
Luckily, not all of the records were purged. Records I did find reveal that Arpaio is following a very unusual investment strategy by investing large amounts of cash in commercial properties -- sometimes paying for the property in cash. Commercial real estate investors typically invest minimal amounts of cash into properties and borrow the rest, particularly when interest rates have been at historic lows.
After Arpaio refused to voluntarily provide me copies of all his commercial real estate records, New Times filed a lawsuit asking the court to unseal the records, with his personal address redacted. Presiding Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Colin Campbell denied our request without comment. The case is now on appeal.
Arpaio's refusal to release real estate records that are normally public documents is very disturbing because it raises the specter of corruption. There is no way for the public to determine how much property Arpaio owns, how much he paid for the property, whether the sale was at a market price, or how much he borrowed and under what terms.
Other events have transpired over the past year to make me wonder whether the sheriff can be bought. Arpaio has shown a persistent and disturbing willingness to use his police powers to allow wealthy and well-connected inmates to serve sentences in a supposedly closed jail facility in Mesa that deputies derisively call the "Mesa Hilton."
Rather than serving time in hellish Tent City, Arpaio allows his special guests to serve their sentences in private, climate-controlled cells at the Mesa Hilton. The lucky inmates are also allowed to bring luxury personal items into the jail, including cell phones, musical instruments, computers and takeout meals.
Arpaio knows that the genteel class is willing to do just about anything to avoid having to serve time in the tents, where inmates are packed in like rats to swelter in the summer and get chilled to the bone in the winter.
It's not uncommon for those who serve jail sentences in the Mesa Hilton to do substantial favors for Arpaio.
Country-western singer Glen Campbell served his DUI sentence in the Mesa facility last July. On his last day in jail, Campbell threw a concert at Tent City that got Arpaio's smiling face on news shows across the globe.
Professional-sports mogul Jerry Colangelo's daughter, Mandie, also served her DUI sentence at Mesa, after which dad hosted an extravagant fund raiser for Arpaio that raised $50,000 in one day.
Likewise, Phoenix businessman Joseph Deihl served time in the Mesa jail on a solicitation conviction after his father donated $10,000 to Arpaio's reelection campaign.
Angry over my disclosures about Arpaio's commercial real estate business and his willingness to apparently sell space at the Mesa Hilton, the MCSO retaliated by stonewalling my public records requests leading up to the September Republican primary against challenger Dan Saban.
New Times filed a second lawsuit in September seeking the release of these public records. Only then did the MCSO release a portion of the records we had requested.
Even after the suit was filed, the sheriff's office has continued to withhold certain public records. Among them are documents containing the names of all those who have served jail sentences in the Mesa facility and a complete accounting of millions of dollars' worth of food and sundries sold to Tent City inmates.
As the 72-year-old Arpaio heads into his fourth four-year term, other storm clouds are gathering. Foremost among them are numerous wrongful-death/injury lawsuits and wrongful-arrest suits that will begin coming to trial next year. The legal actions expose county taxpayers to tens of millions of dollars' worth of claims.
Arpaio was once the state's most popular politician, and toyed with running for governor in 1998 and 2002, but his political base isn't what it used to be. He's still stinging over the Maricopa County Republican Executive Committee's vote to abandon him during last September's primary and endorse Saban.
Although Arpaio defeated Saban by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin, Saban nevertheless ended Arpaio's days of coasting to reelection. Arpaio can forget about the long lines of politicians of all stripes bowing to kiss his ring in the hopes of gaining his endorsement. Outlaw Joe is now persona non grata in polite political circles -- designated such by no less than U.S. Senator John McCain, who endorsed Saban in the primary.
One of Arpaio's biggest failures is his inability to open two new jails with more than 3,200 beds that cost taxpayers close to $500 million. America's self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff" has created such a harsh work environment that he's been unable to hire sufficient detention officers to safely open the jails.
This isn't a minor shortfall.
Officials say Arpaio needs to hire at least 700 more detention officers before he can open the new pens. This is on top of another 600 detention officers he needs just to keep up with a rapidly growing prisoner population that now exceeds 9,000.
Gerberry says it could be years before Arpaio can hire enough guards to operate the county jail's system at full capacity. Gerberry says higher pay alone will not solve the problem.
"Arpaio has to turn around and change the attitude of the office and bring up morale," Gerberry says. "That is the biggest task."
There's no way a buffoon like Joe will rise to that. It's clear the sheriff's job requires management skills far beyond his abilities. And Arpaio certainly can't rely on his twice-bankrupt chief deputy, David Hendershott, to efficiently run the operation.
Arpaio's jailhouse fiasco comes at the same time as thousands of inmates and pretrial detainees (more than 70 percent of those locked up are awaiting trial) are housed in horrific conditions repeatedly condemned by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. In sophisticated cities with a vigorous daily press, Arpaio's failure to open the new jails would be front-page news week after week.
Yet, this publication notwithstanding, his colossal blunder barely rates an offhand mention in the lackadaisical Phoenix TV and print media. I wonder if that has anything to do with Arpaio's son-in-law, Phil Boas, who holds a highbrow job as deputy editorial page editor at the Arizona Republic.
Rather than dispatching a crack team of reporters to descend on the sheriff's office en masse to find out why in the hell Arpaio can't hire enough detention officers to open the jails, the Republic and other media lazily slop up tender tidbits from Joe's propaganda mill -- whose never-ending mission is to hoodwink the public into believing that Arpaio's doing a great job.
That's why you see the heartwarming stories about Arpaio's horse-mounted posse members patrolling shopping mall parking lots to protect Christmas shoppers from (shiver!) lurking thieves. Nobody mentions that shopping malls have private security forces, plus they can call police from the cities in which they are located. Joe's primary job is to safely operate the jails, which, I repeat, he is failing miserably to do.
Another ridiculous public relations stunt is Arpaio's animal-protection program that houses stray and mistreated dogs and cats in better conditions than humans must abide inside the jail. Never mind that Arpaio's crack SWAT team completely botched a misdemeanor arrest last summer and ended up burning down a house, incinerating a puppy, having its armored personnel carrier smash into a parked car and completely terrifying a quiet, upscale residential neighborhood in Ahwatukee.
MCSO's animal-cruelty prevention program exists for one reason: It provides great photo ops for Arpaio! But again, it is not the sheriff's job to take care of mistreated animals. Maricopa County already has an entire agency dedicated to this task.
Perhaps the daily press is scared to accurately report on Arpaio's seedy operation because scribes and television's glamour guys and gals fear that one day they may fall into Arpaio's grasp as an inmate inside his dreadful gulag. Then, it might come in handy to be known as a "Friend of Joe."
Being Arpaio's pal certainly didn't hurt former Channel 15 television reporter Robert Koebel when he was faced last month with a 12-day jail sentence stemming from an extreme DUI conviction.
Koebel was arrested in December 2003 in Phoenix on the DUI charge. Last February, Koebel says he attended the Colangelo-hosted fund raiser for Arpaio and donated $100 to Arpaio's campaign.
Koebel says he didn't consider the campaign contribution to be unethical or a conflict of interest, even though he frequently covered Arpaio. Instead, Koebel claims he made the contribution simply to attend a party with his law enforcement friends.
"That night I went to go socialize with them and I paid that $100, I didn't even think about it really going to the sheriff's reelection," he tells me.
In late April, Koebel claims Dan Saban's former foster mother called him and made an astounding accusation. Ruby Norman accused Arpaio's opponent in the upcoming Republican primary of raping her 30 years ago when Saban was a teenager living in her home.
Koebel contacted the sheriff's office, and within hours MCSO dispatched two detectives to take a full report from Norman. Any legitimate police force would have immediately referred the case to another law enforcement agency because of the obvious conflict of interest.
But Arpaio's MCSO can be far less than legitimate when the sheriff smells the blood of a political foe.
The MCSO quickly prepared a police report that included the transcribed interview with Norman, and delivered it to Koebel. Armed with the MCSO records, Koebel confronted Saban with television cameras rolling after a campaign event and asked the candidate to comment on the rape allegation and on the MCSO's investigation.
A shocked Saban denied the accusation and urged Koebel to do further investigation before airing the story.
There were obvious problems with Norman's claim, foremost that she waited 30 years to make the charge. There were also serious concerns expressed by MCSO investigators that even if the allegations were true, the statute of limitations had probably expired.
Nevertheless, Koebel says Channel 15 went ahead and broadcast the dubious story without further reporting. Koebel says it was a desperate effort by the last-place news station to gain ratings during last spring's sweeps week.
The Channel 15 broadcast was a blow to Saban's campaign. Saban spent more than $8,000 on an attorney and an investigator to clear his name. Soon after the story aired, the MCSO referred the case to the Pima County Sheriff's Office, which declined to prosecute citing statute-of-limitations issues.
Saban's private investigator soon discovered Koebel's $100 contribution to Arpaio's campaign before Koebel did the Ruby Norman hit piece. Saban seized on Koebel's cozy and unethical ties with Arpaio and, within days, Channel 15 fired Koebel.
While Koebel lost his job, he had won an Arpaio battle star.
On November 3, Koebel reported to the Estrella Jail to begin serving his 12-day sentence. He says he was greeted by a detention officer who had good news. Koebel would not be forced to endure the indignities at Tent City, but instead would be housed in the comfortable accommodations at the Mesa Hilton.
Koebel says he doesn't believe he was receiving special treatment because of his friendship with Arpaio, the $100 donation to Arpaio's campaign and his Channel 15 hit piece on Saban. Instead, Koebel says the detention officers simply believed that having him in the tents would pose a liability for the county if he were injured.
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"What I was told . . . was that it would not be a good place for me to be," Koebel says. "I didn't get into the details with them."
The devil's in the details -- which, painstakingly pulled together one piece at a time, demonstrate that Joe Arpaio shamefully uses the color of authority to punish his enemies, protect his friends and support his campaign.
And to all a good night.
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