Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona's Other Justice Department Problem

The federal civil-rights case against notorious Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio may not be his biggest legal headache. Terry Greene Sterling on the abuse-of-power probe that could end his career.

Sheriff Officer Joe Arpaio (Joshua Lott / Getty Images)

Arizona’s notorious “Sheriff Joe” Arpaio was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice Thursday for not cooperating in a 17-month racial-profiling probe stemming from his immigration raids. But that isn’t the only potentially career-ending battle the lawman is having with the feds these days.

A separate Justice probe—one largely overshadowed by the racial-profiling investigation, and little-noticed outside of Arizona—could lead to the sheriff’s indictment for violating the civil rights of political foes by launching well-publicized but ultimately unsuccessful criminal investigations and, in some cases, fruitless indictments, of his perceived enemies. If indicted and found guilty of a felony, the man branded “America’s Toughest Sheriff” by the press—infamous for parading inmates in pink underwear and introducing voluntary chain gangs—could be removed from office under Arizona law.

A federal grand jury in Phoenix began investigating allegations of abuses of power in the offices of Arpaio and his political sidekick, former County Attorney Andrew Thomas, several months ago.

The feds’ investigation was bolstered in late August by a court-ordered release of grand jury documents, spearheaded by acting Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley. The 61-year-old Vietnam veteran and moderate Republican has for years been Arpaio’s nemesis, and he handed over the released records to the feds.

The records show that a Maricopa County grand jury in March chose to “end the inquiry” of a conservative Republican county supervisor, a judge, and other county officials who had opposed Arpaio and Thomas. Nevertheless, Romley reported, Thomas’ office shopped around for out-of-county prosecutors to take the case, and Arpaio’s chief deputy threatened to release “incriminating evidence” on a foe after the grand jury’s vote to end the inquiry. ( Thomas says Romley is lying and Eric Dowell, who was referred to The Daily Beast by a sheriff’s spokesman for comment, did not return a phone call.)

“It is hard to know what will happen, but there could be an indictment of a number of individuals involved in this case,” says Paul Charlton, a former U.S. attorney who represented Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon—one of those who spoke out against Arpaio, only to become the target of a criminal investigation that went nowhere. Charlton also represents a county supervisor facing a criminal indictment that’s been halted pending a state bar investigation of Thomas.

There’s “something very Nixonian” about Arpaio and Thomas, who were tremendously popular for their stand on “a single monolithic issue—immigration” and yet were driven by “arrogance and a sense of impunity” to seek revenge on political foes, Charlton says.

“There could be an indictment of a number of individuals involved in this case,” says former U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton.

Legal scholars and lawyers say the feds have to show a pattern of abuse of power, and the grand jury documents add to the pattern. There was “nothing to the allegations” and that’s why the grand jury ended the inquiry, says Lee Stein, a former assistant U.S. attorney who represented Gary Donahoe, a county judge who ruled against Arpaio and Thomas in a case and was subsequently indicted and charged with bribery, hindering prosecution, and obstructing a criminal investigation. (The charges were later dismissed.)

Romley contended in August that Arpaio and Thomas engaged in “improper, unethical, and corrupt” behavior, and added that “it may be judges and elected officials who are targeted today, but tomorrow it could be any of us.” Romley himself was the next target—of pre-primary TV ads and mailed flyers depicting Romley as “too risky for Arizona families” and a “dangerous” foe of Sheriff Joe’s immigration enforcement policies. Those ads may have resulted in Romley’s loss of the Republican primary for county attorney to an Arpaio ally, Bill Montgomery.

The ads, which cost about $400,000, were bankrolled by Arpaio’s 2012 reelection committee, which has amassed more than $1 million in campaign contributions from donors across the country. The TV ads were deemed legal by a deputy county attorney, but the flyers were not. A legal battle looms. “We’ll fight it tooth and nail,” says Chad Willems, who is managing Arpaio’s campaign for reelection to a sixth term as sheriff in 2012. Romley, who had served as county attorney from 1980 to 2004, has long clashed with Arpaio, first over jail conditions and over zealous searches, then over immigration enforcement policies.

He was appointed interim county attorney in April to replace Thomas, who had stepped down in what turned out to be a failed bid to win the Republican primary for attorney general.

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Arpaio, who became a national celebrity with publicity stunts that include bunking convicted inmates in outdoor “Tent City” jails, forcing them to wear pink skivvies, initiating a voluntary chain gang, and raiding heavily Latino neighborhoods in the Phoenix area, might also be declining in popularity. Once seen as the most viable Republican candidate for governor, his popularity in Arizona has waned even as he strengthened his populist illegal-immigration-fighting persona outside of Arizona. In the federal lawsuit filed Thursday, the Justice Department says the sheriff and his employer, Maricopa County, failed to cooperate in a 17-month civil-rights investigation “of alleged national origin discrimination” in “police practices and jail operations.” In that suit, the Justice Department seeks court-ordered access to Arpaio’s employees, jails, and relevant documents to investigate alleged racial profiling and other violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act related to the sheriff’s immigration-enforcement.

Arpaio portrayed himself as the victim of federal harassment in a press release put out Thursday afternoon. “The Obama administration intended to sue us all along, no matter what we did to try to avert it,” Sheriff Joe wrote. “Washington isn't playing fair and it's time Americans everywhere wake up and see this administration for what it really is.” At a press conference Thursday, the sheriff said the Justice Department had “no proof” that “alleged racial profiling” occurred in the streets of Phoenix. The sheriff’s former chief deputy, state Sen. Russell Pearce, who has spearheaded Arizona’s increasingly harsh immigration laws that the sheriff has enthusiastically enforced, stood by his side and called the suit a “witch hunt.”

Given the nature of the abuse-of-power allegations in the other investigation of Arpaio, it was an interesting choice of words.

Terry Greene Sterling is an Arizona journalist who blogs about immigration in Phoenix at Her book, ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone, was published July 1st by the Globe Pequot Press.