Joe Strikes Back

It's been obvious to The Bird for a long time that Sheriff Joe Arpaio despises New Times. Why else would he violate the Arizona public records law by keeping documents about pertinent activities to taxpayers hidden from the public? Why else would he deny New Times writers access to his press conferences, in obvious violation of our First Amendment rights?

Why else would he spend two and a half years seeking New Times' criminal prosecution for publishing his home address on the Internet, when his home address is published in cyberspace in numerous public documents? That New Times holds a special place in Sheriff Joe's hard heart became apparent this week when we received a threat from the Pinal County Attorney's Office that it would seek a felony indictment against this publication unless we agree to remove the address from our Web site and never to publish the address of a peace officer in cyberspace again.

You can discern our answer on the cover of this newspaper's print edition. To make the point that we will not be intimidated, we are sending the sheriff a Christmas card.

Arpaio's wanting to intimidate us should be no surprise. We filed a lawsuit to obtain a wide range of public records from his office in October 2004 that is still pending, and we have been criticizing the treatment of prisoners in his jails for a decade. The self-described "toughest sheriff in America" is paranoid enough to believe he has more than enough reasons to go after us. His claim that our publication of his address on our Web site has put him at risk is just so much hooey.

Arpaio's a public official who, for as long as he's been in office, has run around all over the county opening the likes of the Pink Taco restaurant, and yet he's continually carped that somebody's out to kill him. He set up his Threat Assessment Squad because he's reputedly scared of his own shadow, while at the same time never missing a photo-op. So judge for yourself: Is he really afraid, or is it all a ploy to get TV cameras to come on down?

One thing's for sure: He's got a vindictive streak. He never forgets a slight, and New Times has been challenging him with in-depth stories about his shenanigans since he showed up on the public landscape. Back in the day, he was known as Nickel-Bag Joe (so nicknamed by fellow officers when he was a DEA agent, because he was known for making so many chicken-shit busts).

Fast-forward to the summer of 2004, when Nickel-Bag Joe complained to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office that former New Times writer John Dougherty published his home address in a story headlined "Stick It To 'Em" (July 8, 2004). He alleged this violated a state law that prohibits publishing the home addresses of peace officers in cyberspace (a law that oddly doesn't prohibit publication of them in print journals). After he assumed office, County Attorney Andrew Thomas reviewed the matter and apparently concluded that he had a conflict of interest because his office must represent the sheriff's office, and the sheriff is the "victim" in this situation.

The case was referred to Pinal County Attorney Robert Carter Olson, whose office has handled such conflict-of-interest cases for Maricopa County in the past. The news that Pinal County would seek an indictment unless New Times agreed to its demands came when our attorney, Steve Suskin, took a call from Olson's office. Not long after, Deputy Pinal County Attorney Bradley M. Soos' formal letter of intent to prosecute New Times corporately landed on our doorstep: "The Office respects the important and constitutionally-protected rights of a free press, but we are obligated to carefully balance those rights against the legitimate safety concerns of law enforcement officers and their families."

Bradley, hang on to that word "legitimate," because The Bird will demonstrate that your office's concern is hardly that.

Did this winged wordsmith mention that the punishment for violating this law is a maximum fine of $1 million? That Pinal County prosecutors would first have to win a conviction using a state law that's shot full of legal holes? That prosecutors would have to prove that (in the language of the law) "the dissemination of the personal information poses an imminent and serious threat" to the public official involved, and "the threat is reasonably apparent to the person making the information available"?

To call this a Herculean legal feat is an understatement.

If there were really an "imminent and serious threat" to Sheriff Joe, why has it taken more than two years for someone to squawk about pressing charges? In that time, there's been no threat made public that Joe's been in danger because of the publication of this address. And you can bet your tail feathers such a threat would've been made public, given the sheriff's mania for getting his mug all over the boob tube.