Joe Arpaio's Justice Department Problem Could Cost County Way More Than $25 Million

On Wednesday, we told you about U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy asking Attorney General Eric Holder asking if Maricopa County could be on the hook for repaying up to $25 million in federal taxpayer coin, thanks to the Justice Department's civil-rights case against Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Turns out, alleged civil-rights violations by Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office could potentially cost way, way more -- hundreds of millions of dollars.

It's unlikely, but county officials and the Board of Supervisors think there's a possibility the county could be liable for more than $400 million.

While Leahy asked Holder about federal money delegated to MCSO for one specific program, it's just the tip of the iceberg for what the county's been worried about since 2010, when the Justice Department sued the sheriff's office and the county for not turning over documents.

"Title VI is the section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that says no federal money can be used by a recipient agency that discriminates," then-County Manager David Smith wrote in a 2010 memo. "...We all see Title VI 'assurances' in language at the end of every federal grant application. When we sign such an application we are providing an 'assurance' to the federal government that we are in compliance."

In fiscal year 2009, the Board of Supervisors accepted $130 million in federal funding. In 2010, it was $148 million, and that went up to $155 million in 2011.

"Each and every one of these (federal) grants requires the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors to assure that the funds are being spent in accordance with Title VI," Smith's memo says. "At this time, the Board of Supervisors is limited in its ability to offer that assurance."

Therefore, it's not clear how much of those federal grants to the county could have to be reimbursed, since it's the Board of Supervisors that's taking in the grants and making those assurances.

That memo was obviously written before Arpaio and MCSO were sued by the Justice Department for racial-profiling practices, and that lawsuit even mentions those so-called "assurances" made in the county accepting federal funds.

It's unknown how much money the federal government would or could seek from the county, or whether only funds delegated to the sheriff's office would be in question.

"We don't have any indications either way -- if they're going to pull sheriff's office funding, or just during years [racial-profiling practices] allegedly occurred," county spokeswoman Cari Gerchick tells New Times.

If they're just looking at funds to the county that eventually ended up at the sheriff's office, it's still a big hit, because the sheriff's office received more than $5.3 million in federal grants last year alone.

The Board of Supervisors would then likely have to replace that federal funding with the county's cash, Gerchick says, as they don't want to compromise public safety just to "punish" MCSO.

If the feds did try to reclaim all grant money to all county departments, it would be impossible, as the county doesn't really have hundreds of millions of dollars laying around.

"That is our worst nightmare," Gerchick says.

The county also prepared a spreadsheet of the effects of federal funding being cut to its respective departments -- which is a possible result for being out of compliance with the agreement -- and the results ain't pretty.

Consider the public health department, which took in $29.5 million in federal grants for 2011. Specifically mentioned services affected would be STD testing, immunizations for kids, tuberculosis monitoring, and healthcare for the homeless.

The housing authority also relies a lot on federal grants -- to the tune of more than $19.6 million in 2011. That's mostly used to help subsidize Section 8 housing.

"If they pulled all the federal funds, it would just be devastating for the county government," Gerchick says.

Again, it's not likely Uncle Sam would come to town to jack hundreds of millions of dollars, but it's a reality the county has to be aware of considering the position it's in.