The Devil's in the Details

'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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty