The Man With a Teflon Star

Mired in legal problems, Sheriff Joe Arpaio still portrays himself as a folk hero—and, so far, he refuses to ride off into the Arizona sunset

Any other politician would be on life support.

But not Joe Arpaio, the publicity-grabbing, five-term Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff who is beset by bad news from all sides.

In December, the U.S. Department of Justice accused Arpaio of heading an agency where civil rights violations run rampant. Earlier county investigations turned up financial and managerial controversies. Federal probes continue.

Recent county investigations have revealed bizarre bookkeeping that misrouted a hundred million dollars, misspending on pricey meals and accommodations for deputies, and political harassment and retribution against public officials and publishers carried out by a chief deputy.

But the thorniest issues come from federal prosecutors. They say the sheriff’s department routinely racially profiled, unlawfully stopped, detained and arrested Latinos—and then retaliated against those who complained about it. Investigators said officials discriminated against non-English-speaking inmates in the county jails by denying them services and punishing them for not obeying commands given in English.

In a fusillade of other citations noting deviations from accepted practices, investigators also warned Arpaio against use of excessive force and creating a “wall of distrust” between the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and the Latino community.

The Justice Department is also probing allegations that Arpaio botched hundreds of sex-crime cases, many of them involving children. The sex-crime issue originally surfaced in a Pulitzer-winning series of articles examining Arpaio’s department that appeared in 2008 in the local East Valley Tribune, but only gained national and Justice Department attention—not to mention additional local concern—when the Associated Press ran a national story in 2011.

If Arpaio fails to appease the Justice Department with reforms, the feds’ findings alone could land him in court this month. But a potentially massive class-action discrimination lawsuit against his department is already in the courts. And a separate federal grand jury investigation into abuse of power is ongoing.

Yet Arpaio seems untroubled by it all. He even considered a run for the U.S. Senate before confirming in early January that he would pursue a sixth term as sheriff this year. At a time when you’d think he would be on his last legs politically, Arpaio is more like Keith Richards checking in for a refreshing blood transfusion in Switzerland.

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The Massachusetts-born Arpaio was a Las Vegas police officer for six months in 1957 and later spent 25 years as a federal narcotics agent. But he discovered his flair for drama in Arizona, catapulting himself to national TV talk-show couches and book deals when he took office in 1993 and started cracking down on county jail inmates. He housed them in tents that hit 145 degrees during Arizona’s torrid summers, fed them moldy bologna, dressed them in pink underwear and put them on chain gangs, arousing the passions of law-and-order voters along with the antipathy of Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union. More recently, he’s turned to headline-grabbing immigration raids, frequently claiming dubious threats on his life and anointing himself the county’s chief warrior against pet abuse.

The good publicity helps the voters—who have elected him sheriff five times by historic margins—overlook his excesses, such as the multiple prisoners who have died in his jails, victims of both officials and fellow inmates, plus the millions in county payouts and legal fees related to lawsuits filed by victims’ families.

“America’s Toughest Sheriff” (the title of one of his national best-sellers) expects to raise a $6 million war chest for his 2012 campaign. Why shouldn’t he be optimistic? If past is prologue, Arpaio’s candidacy will succeed wildly by employing his usual strategy: stage shocking media events and preen in front of cameras to ensure a calculated image as Arizona’s toughest lawman since Wyatt Earp.

For example, in the spring before the 2008 elections, Arpaio set up a series of well-publicized immigration “sweeps” in which sheriff’s deputies, some on horseback, swooped into Hispanic neighborhoods and rounded up brown-skinned people, arresting them on any charge that would provide an opportunity to examine their citizenship status. Broken-tail-light laws were heavily enforced. Meanwhile, Arpaio would heroically provide on-scene interviews to TV news teams. Few deportations resulted. But come November, Arpaio won easily with 55 percent of the vote against two opponents.

The actions made Arpaio the exemplar for enforcing Arizona’s latest immigration law, SB 1070, whose “round ’em up” aspects have been blocked by a federal judge. The controversial law requires all aliens to carry proper identification regarding their status and requires law enforcement officers to check immigration status when there is suspicion that an individual is in the country illegally. Critics say it encourages racial profiling and harassment of all Hispanics and intrudes on federal enforcement. The courts have upheld the federal judge’s ruling against the most controversial part of the law—requiring cops to check the immigration status of those they stop.

A number of related lawsuits remain in the courts, and the sheriff’s close association with the law has hurt him among Hispanic voters, but it hasn’t hurt his national popularity at all.

As recently as late November, Republican presidential hopefuls including Mitt Romney, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain were pursuing his blessing, until he endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

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Few observers of Arizona politics believe Arpaio will resign or be booted from office. For one thing, the U.S. Attorney doesn’t really want a lawsuit against Arizona’s most popular politician. Arpaio has agreed to negotiate with the feds on how to reform his department, and since the negotiations will be conducted in secret, he can make just enough concessions to avoid unsavory consequences—without admitting anything publicly.

Another arrow in Sheriff Joe’s quiver is his facile way of working a situation. He doesn’t mind changing his opinion for tactical gain. For a long time, for example, he claimed the authority to enforce federal immigration laws. But his own attorney recently said Arpaio has relinquished those powers and is now content to focus only on human smuggling.

Arpaio also can count on his proven skills as a media expert, which probably haven’t suffered from the fact that his daughter is a former journalist who is married to an op-ed editor for The Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper.

His record at the polls—he has won as much as 66 percent of votes cast—is likely to furnish enormous advantages. The clout of his electoral strength basically makes his good will crack for politicians. It even earns him support from some unlikely sources. In 1995, then U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who would later become Arizona’s attorney general and governor, led a Justice Department investigation into subhuman conditions at Arpaio’s jails, where several inmates had died.

The feds filed a lawsuit, which was settled. But Napolitano restrained any temptation to gloat. She praised Arpaio and minimized the lawsuit as “lawyerly paperwork,” according to The Arizona Republic. Arpaio later looked favorably on Napolitano’s candidacy for governor. (She is now secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration.)

At least one politico may resist Arpaio’s magic. Randy Parraz, a community organizer who ran for U.S. Senate in 2008, has been demonstrating against Arpaio’s immigration enforcement for the past few years with his group, Citizens for a Better Arizona. In mid-January, Parraz and his supporters attended a county board meeting to ask county supervisors to rein in Arpaio. As Parraz and a dozen others demanded the board look into Arpaio’s alleged mismanagement of taxpayer money, the room noisily erupted with grumblings from Arpaio supporters. Parraz and company left, saying they would return, and they have continued to protest at county meetings. (Parraz’s group is not toothless. In 2011 it engineered the recall election that ousted Russell Pearce, the state senator and chief sponsor of SB 1070. But Pearce was never the top vote-getter in Arizona.)

Stephen Lemons, a columnist for Phoenix New Times, a muckraking weekly that could start a museum with the numerous press awards it has won investigating Arpaio since the 1990s, views the prospect of an Arpaio exit as slim, but suggested a possible scenario in his blog.

“The only way I can see Arpaio resigning,” he writes, “is if the do-nothings at the U.S. Department of Justice get a heavenly dose of testosterone and do a deal with the sheriff, forcing his resignation under threat of prosecution.”

On the other hand, maybe, someday, he’ll choose retirement: Arpaio turns 80 in June.