It's August 1989, and travel agent Joe Arpaio is sweating bullets. His contract to coordinate travel for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is up for rebid, and Arpaio must convince a four-person panel that his company's proposal is better than the other two finalists'. If he fails, he'll lose about $200,000 in business--a contract he had won the year before under a previous sheriff who happened to be a personal friend.
But now there's a new sheriff in town and Arpaio has stiff competition from other bidders. He's got only 30 minutes to convince the committee--composed of three deputies and one county civilian employee--that he'll deliver the best deal.
So he offers the department a kickback.
Dennis Hogan, the county Materials Management employee present that day, says Arpaio verbally offered to send a percentage of airline-ticket sales back to the sheriff's warrants division, which oversaw travel. The offer didn't match the written proposal Arpaio had submitted and was, in Hogan's view, so unethical that he reported it to his supervisor that day.
Arpaio tells New Times his verbal offer was no different from what he pitched on paper. And, besides, he adds, kickbacks are standard in the travel industry.
Not on county contracts they're not, Hogan counters.
Seven years later, Hogan works for a California medical firm, but Arpaio's offer--and his sheer audacity in making it--is still etched in Hogan's mind. Of the other three people present that day, Tricia Patterson and Kelley Waldrip remain with the Sheriff's Office and turned down interview requests. The third, Larry Tyree, has since left the department but refused to comment.
Due in part to his desperate offer, Arpaio lost the contract and the $200,000 in sales. (His wife, Ava, insists she was present--Hogan doesn't remember her--and that Joe never offered anything that wasn't in writing. "When we went to the table, those kickbacks were shown to them. We might give back 1 percent of our 10 percent [profit]. That was in the written contract," she says. Later, she insists that she and her husband offered a "rebate" not a "kickback.")
Three years later, Arpaio would become Maricopa County's sheriff himself.
He looks astonished when he's asked if he holds himself and his employees to a high ethical standard. Of course, he replies.
But recent revelations tend to indicate otherwise: In February, New Times reported that Arpaio spent $39,350 in public funds earmarked for jail enhancement on an attorney who filed a 1994 lawsuit against the county Board of Supervisors. Arpaio had promised not to spend public money in his lawsuit. He spent another $11,000 of the jail-enhancement money for video copies of his television appearances, directing a video service to send him copies anytime Arpaio spoke on camera. The jail-fund expenditures have prompted an investigation by the state auditor general.
Arpaio's office is also under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which is probing claims of abuse of jail inmates. The Sheriff's Office has spread misinformation about the deaths and beatings of inmates, and it resists attempts by reporters to obtain public records.
Many view Arpaio as the most popular elected official in Arizona but, as a sizable faction of his deputies is eager to point out, his decision making is hardly beyond reproach.
And some of those decisions involve the appointment of people who have themselves been accused of improprieties.
The sheriff's political agenda is managed by a man who was bounced out of a job with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after the agency received complaints that he was using his position and political influence for personal gain.
And Arpaio has given authority over his jails--marketed as the country's toughest on lawbreakers--to an officer who has been accused by his ex-wife and others of misusing county property and lying about his whereabouts during business hours. The officer denies the charges and says that a sheriff's internal investigation exonerated him.
Bill Miller, a former deputy chief under Arpaio, says the sheriff's inner circle consists of sycophantic appointees with far-reaching powers. Miller, who retired in 1994, explains that despite Arpaio's 25 years as a federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent, he has little experience in other forms of law enforcement management.
"I don't think Arpaio knows how to spell 'homicide,'" says Miller. "He's walked all over evidence when he showed up at my crime scenes. We had to have his footprints taken so we could separate his prints from the other evidence."
Miller says Arpaio has been forced to rely on subordinates to an embarrassing degree. And with the mainstream media finally asking tougher questions in the wake of the death of jail inmate Scott Norberg, Arpaio's policy messes are increasingly being dumped into the laps of his inner circle.