Tough Guy

Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Birther Brouhaha

“Sheriff Joe” is at it again, claiming Obama’s birth certificate is fake. By Terry Greene Sterling.

Matt York / AP Photo

Just two days before Arizona’s “Sheriff Joe” Arpaio was scheduled to face a federal court trial alleging he rampantly racially profiled Latinos during traffic stops, Arpaio launched yet another a limp birther publicity stunt.

At a press conference on July 17, Arpaio’s volunteer “Cold Case Posse” investigators claimed President Barack Obama’s birth certificate was “probably” fraudulent. Straight-faced, Arpaio suggested Congress take over his posse’s investigation, focusing on Hawaii’s “very lax” issuance of birth certificates that might impede national security.

Arizona’s press corps showed clear signs of Arpaio fatigue. The Arizona Republic, a Gannett newspaper and the state’s largest daily, pointed out that the sheriff’s latest birther brouhaha was likely intended to deflect bad national press that might arise when the sheriff goes to court today.

Among those expected to testify: a retired Mexican schoolteacher named Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres. In September 2007, he crossed legally into Arizona with a valid U.S.-issued visa that would expire in 2016. A few days later, Melendres was a passenger in a car stopped by Arpaio’s deputies. The lawmen told the white driver he’d been speeding but didn’t issue a ticket. Instead, they mocked Melendres, asked him how often he masturbated, cuffed his painful deformed wrist behind his back, then shoved him into a sheriff’s vehicle.

He was detained for nine hours without food or water. He was not advised of his Miranda rights. He did not know why he was being detained. He was not allowed a phone call. Deputies finally brought the frightened Mexican retiree to a federal immigration center, where his papers were checked. He was immediately released.

The Melendres narrative was filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, where Melendres and other Latinos allege Arpaio and his deputies engaged in widespread racial profiling of innocent Mexican citizens with papers and American citizens of Hispanic descent during traffic stops connected to “crime-suppression sweeps” in heavily Latino neighborhoods in the Phoenix area.

Those sweeps were sometimes fueled by Arpaio’s constituents, who called into a hotline, emailed, or wrote the sheriff’s office. One such constituent communiqué says: “If you have dark skin, then you have dark skin! Unfortunately, that is the look of the Mexican illegal [sic] who are here ILLEGALLY […] They bring their unclean, disrespectful, integrity-less [sic], law breaking selves here […] I am begging you to come over to the 29thSt/Greenway Pkwy area and round them all up!...They crawl around here all day and night.”

In addition to the Melendres trial, the Toughest Sheriff in America faces mounting political and legal problems in Arizona that he may not be able to overcome. They include a Department of Justice civil-rights lawsuit alleging racial profiling of Latinos filed earlier this year, another DOJ ongoing investigation into allegations Arpaio illegally retaliated against political foes with bogus indictments and investigations, and Arpaio’s critics, like Latino activist Randy Parraz, who constantly say the sheriff’s office has cost taxpayers $100 million in court costs and settlements. His foes repeatedly point out allegations that the sheriff’s office mishandled 400 sex-abuse cases in El Mirage, a Phoenix suburb, choosing to ignore child-sex crimes in favor of launching immigration raids. (The sheriff denies wrongdoing.) And he’s facing a wrongful death suit filed by the family of a Latino mentally ill veteran who died under suspicious circumstances in his jail.

What’s more, as Democrats flex newfound muscle in Arizona, they’ve used Arpaio as a way to needle Mitt Romney. Dems point out Arpaio was Mitt Romney’s honorary campaign chair in Arizona in 2008, and call on Romney to denounce the sheriff’s conspiracy-minded politics. “Arpaio’s continued fascination with a conspiracy theory that has been debunked time and again presents an opportunity for Romney to finally rise to the occasion and denounce the extreme voices in his party, but all we’ve heard is silence,” Arizona Democrats chortled in an email blast to constituents.

Arpaio is 80 now, and Arizona’s changing demography is working against him. His white voters are aging, and the statewide concern about illegal immigration has abated now that rates are at a historic low. He has served as sheriff for 20 years, and seeks yet another term in November. But he still calls himself the “Toughest Sheriff in America,” and that resonates with a national audience. And as his fundraising prowess declines in Arizona, he relies heavily on out-of-state donors to fatten his $3.4 million campaign chest. Lately, he’s been hitting up out-of-state birthers for donations.

The sheriff has denied wrongdoing, in and out of court. His spokeswoman, Lisa Allen, says he won’t talk to The Daily Beast about the precourt birther-press-conference timing. “He’s not talking about this,” she writes in an email. “This assertion was the creation of reporters working for Gannett … It is not true.”