Feathered Bastard

The New York Times on Janet Napolitano's Ambition Sans Conscience, and Her Chances of Being a Supreme

Just how far can you go with a record of political mediocrity, an absence of conscience and a boatload of ambition?

As ex-Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano continues to prove, very far indeed. The Homeland Security czar is reportedly one of those being considered as a replacement for retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. This, despite Napolitano's dismal record as Governor, her lack of leadership on immigration, and her willingness to stand idly by as Sheriff Joe Arpaio persecutes Hispanics, both documented and undocumented, during his ethnic cleansing sweeps in Maricopa County.

Those ethnic cleansing sweeps go on, of course, aided in large part by a 287(g) agreement that allows Arpaio a specially-trained company of 160 deputies empowered to enforce federal immigration law. These 287(g)-men have instilled fear into Arizona's Latino population. Due to their efforts, families have been torn apart, mothers have been separated from their children, brown folk of all legal statuses have been racially profiled, and some women have had their arms broken, or their jaws dislocated.

Napolitano could halt these abuses tomorrow -- or at least the federal government's de facto involvement in them, by tearing up her agency's Memorandum of Agreement with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. What makes it unlikely she will do this is that she has long been an ally of Arpaio, a fact finally acknowledged by the New York Times today in a piece by reporter Ginger Thompson titled, "Napolitano Appears to Straddle Political Divide." In it, Thompson briefly describes Napolitano's alliance with a dubious figure like Arpaio, while analyzing Nappy's chances to wear a black robe on the nation's highest court.

Indeed, Thompson leads with a bit of political lore that's well-known to New Times readers -- how the Napster aided Joe on a Justice Department complaint while Nappy was U.S. Attorney for Arizona. After a two-year investigation, Arpaio settled with the DOJ over a long list of outrages in his jails. Thompson outlines the deal in her intro:

"The day before she mounted her first campaign for public office, Janet Napolitano, then a federal prosecutor, held a news conference with one of the most polarizing figures in law enforcement: Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County.

"Ms. Napolitano had her sights set on a run for Arizona attorney general. Sheriff Arpaio had been under investigation by the Justice Department because of accusations of inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners, including excessive use of stun guns and pepper spray, using tents as holding cells, and requiring detainees to work on chain gangs and wear pink underpants.

"An independent investigation had found evidence of abuses, but at the news conference, Ms. Napolitano announced that her department's inquiry had been suspended after reaching a deal with Sheriff Arpaio to improve conditions at the jail."

Thompson misses a nuance to this now infamous press conference; i.e., Nappy was providing Joe with political cover, helping him make his concessions to the feds seem like no big deal to the public. As New Times scribe Tony Ortega wrote about the presser in 1997,

"Arpaio bragged that despite the investigation and lawsuit, he wouldn't change any of his practices.

"Napolitano, meanwhile, who was spending her final day as Arizona's top federal lawyer, called the lawsuit a "technicality," and dismissed it as "a lawyer's paper."

What Thompson doesn't miss is the fact that this was political tit-for-tat, a quid pro quo that garnered Arpaio's support of Nappy's "political ambitions." In fact, Arpaio bucked the Arizona GOP in 2002 and backed Nappy's first run for Governor, much to the displeasure of Republican party muck-a-mucks.

More sinister even are the recent revelations about Napolitano by Village Voice Media Executive Editor Mike Lacey. In a stinging indictment of Napolitano's flaws as a public servant, Lacey detailed how attorney Mike Manning turned over boxes of information to the FBI concerning the MCSO's destruction of evidence in the June 1, 1996 killing of inmate Scott Norberg.

"Notes taken by a deputy the night of the killing were destroyed," writes Lacey. "Critical X-rays were destroyed. County authorities, under the watchful eye of the sheriff, hid the fact that Norberg's larynx was fractured.

"When the family's independent autopsy uncovered the larynx fracture, county authorities claimed the damage to the bloody tissue must have occurred following the death, a biological impossibility. After the county demanded to take custody of the larynx, the evidence was then destroyed."

Manning was interviewed by Napolitano's staff, but Napolitano refused to do anything about the new information. This was, after all, after she'd helped Arpaio turn a sow's ear into a silk purse for the television cameras during that press conference.

"Presented with the evidence of a criminal conspiracy and the destruction of evidence, Napolitano refused to prosecute Sheriff Joe Arpaio," Lacey observes.

And this is the kind of person Barack Obama wants sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court?

Lacey also discusses how when Napolitano was Guv, she and Arpaio teamed up to write a letter of complaint to then director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, complaining about the head of ICE in Arizona at the time.

"Their complaints regard[ed] the head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) in Arizona, Robert Medina," states Lacey. "The governor and the sheriff wanted more cooperation."

Eventually, they got it. And Sheriff Joe ultimately got his Memorandum of Agreement with ICE for his 287(g) force. It's important to note that Napolitano never spoke out against Arpaio's racial profiling tactics while she was Governor. Why, she never bothered to endorse Arpaio's Democratic rival in the 2008 election, Dan Saban.    

Last year, when Napolitano did take away $1.6 million in state funds Arpaio was using for his anti-immigration sweeps, she avoided criticizing her old buddy Arpaio directly. Her office explained that they wanted the money to go to an interagency task force for the rounding up of felons

See, Napolitano never avails herself of any opportunity to take the moral high road. She's a political hack, incapable of a principled stand. Some of this comes across in the Thompson piece, but the Times has always been too easy on Nappy, and like past Times articles on her, this one is far too kind -- gushing about how Napolitano climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and beat breast cancer, and going so far as to compare her with legendary U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. (That sound you hear is Warren's skeleton rattling its coffin.)

I'm glad that the Times has decided to don its bifocals when it comes to Nappy, and make mention of her political opportunism. But I'm afraid its reporter barely scratched Napolitano's silverish patina of respectability. If the Times would dig a tad deeper, it'd hit a hunk of malformed lead tout de suite.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons