If Maricopa County supervisors wanted to go after Sheriff Joe Arpaio, they could. They could focus on his office’s finances
By Sarah Fenske
Published on December 27, 2007
Sheriff Joe Arpaio has long maintained that he’s accountable to the people — but the people’s accountants are a different story.
Not one of the county supervisors was willing to talk about Arpaio’s finances. Pictured above: Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley.
County Supervisor Andy Kunasek
County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox
County Supervisor Max Wilson
County Supervisor Fulton Brock
Sheriff Joe ArpaioAfter 15 years in the job, Arpaio has yet to endure a comprehensive audit of his office’s finances. Limited audits examining Arpaio’s payroll, his travel policies and the county’s jail enhancement funds have found plenty of problems. But despite that, and even though the sheriff’s $241 million budget is the biggest in the county, Maricopa County supervisors have failed to order a look at the bigger picture.
Compounding the problem, issues identified in the limited audits have been virtually ignored by the Sheriff’s Office.
Consider overtime. This fall, the county revealed that Arpaio spent nearly $2 million more on overtime in the fiscal year’s first quarter than he had been allotted for the entire year. That spending binge, the county manager concluded, was “not sustainable.”
Arpaio’s solution was drastic: He stopped transporting prisoners to court hearings. Forty-six inmates never made it to court on November 6 — even though getting defendants to hearings is one job the sheriff must do under state law. (Suffice it to say that rounding up illegal immigrants and sheltering abused animals are not state mandates, but Arpaio has yet to run out of money for either venture.)
Judges and defense lawyers erupted over the plan, and Arpaio was forced to backpedal, blaming the lack of transports on miscommunication. But his next cost-cutting solution was no less controversial. Arpaio announced that jail visiting time would be limited to the hours of 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Again, the court fell into chaos, and now, Arpaio faces a lawsuit from attorneys unable to meet with their clients. Though the sheriff lost round one, he’s appealing — which, observers note, is hardly the way to save money.
But the most stunning thing about Arpaio’s budget problems isn’t that he overspent so badly. It isn’t even his cockeyed remedy for his financial woes.
The real shocker is that it took this long for overtime to become an issue.
A New Times analysis of financial records show that overtime has been a huge problem for Arpaio for years. Even as the county increased the sheriff’s overtime budget by 85 percent over the last four years, Arpaio has continued to exceed the amount he has been allocated. In fact, in the last four years, the sheriff’s expenditures on overtime have increased 635 percent.
In the 2004 fiscal year, Arpaio spent twice the amount budgeted for overtime. In 2005, he spent more than four times what the county had allotted — overspending by $6.6 million. Last year, Arpaio set a new record: He overshot his overtime budget by a whopping $10.4 million.
In May, the county completed a 25-page audit of the sheriff’s payroll. That report outlined the overtime problem, making specific recommendations to fix the root causes.
The auditors did not suggest slashing jail hours. Or stopping inmate transport. Instead, they pointed out “a need for better management.” That, clearly, was a suggestion Arpaio wasn’t willing to emulate, and his overtime spending continued to swell until it reached crisis proportions six months later.
Such stonewalling has been a pattern when it comes to the sheriff. During his 15 years in office, Arpaio has endured investigations, lawsuits, and audits. He’s cost Maricopa County taxpayers $41.4 million solely in legal fees, insurance premiums, and payouts to the people who’ve sued him. His budget has doubled, his jails have been condemned by the U.S. Department of Justice, and he has never faced an audit that didn’t reveal genuine problems.
Those things, of course, pale next to the list of people who have died in Arpaio’s jails: people awaiting trial who were denied proper medical care or who were abused or ignored by guards. Law enforcement officials and lawyers believe that records on inmate deaths have been destroyed and criminal investigations into those deaths thwarted.
But Arpaio, the Teflon prince of Maricopa County, has outmaneuvered everyone who’s attempted to hold him accountable.
In 1995, the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating conditions in Joe Arpaio’s jails after receiving a complaint about excessive force. Civil rights investigators announced that they would be looking at a litany of serious allegations: physical abuse of inmates by staff, false reporting regarding use of force, denial of access to counsel, and inadequate medical care.
When the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the sheriff a year later, the suit confirmed many of the original allegations. But, unbelievably, then-U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano appeared at a press conference with Arpaio and attempted to convince reporters that Arpaio had actually been exonerated. Napolitano even described the lawsuit as a “technicality.”
The actual suit, of course, says nothing of the kind. Instead, it alleges that Sheriff’s Office brass had “been consciously aware of, but deliberately indifferent to” excessive and improper use of force by jail employees. “Such conduct and practices have and will cause inmates confined in this jail irreparable harm,” the Justice Department concluded.
The suit forced Arpaio to enter into a settlement agreement, mandating a new use-of-force policy and new guidelines for non-lethal weapons.
But during their dog-and-pony show, Napolitano and Arpaio downplayed the findings — and downplayed the idea that there would be any change in the jails. Arpaio even joked about running for governor against Napolitano at some future date.
Six years later, Napolitano did run for governor. Arpaio didn’t, but he proved to be a factor in the election. Arpaio endorsed his old press-conference buddy over her Republican opponent, allowing Napolitano to beat Matt Salmon with just 1 percent of the vote.
In the years since, corrections auditors, county inspectors, and inmates all confirm that conditions in the jails have only gotten worse, as New Times’ John Dickerson reported last week. County inspectors found vermin and cockroaches in jail kitchens. The Justice Department’s own statistics show that Arpaio’s jails are the most chronically overcrowded in the nation. Meanwhile, Justice hasn’t audited Arpaio for compliance. (Justice Department officials say they’re unable to discuss the particulars of the case because it’s simply too old.)
The Justice Department investigation was one of many times that Arpaio has managed to battle his away out of trouble. Whether it’s by stonewalling, or obstruction, or political gamesmanship — no matter who’s come after him, the sheriff has always managed to skate.
The investigation into the death of Scott Norberg is a perfect example. Norberg, who had struggled with drug addiction, was arrested after attempting to slug a cop. He was in Arpaio’s jail just 15 hours before he was handcuffed by guards, kicked, stomped on, and then strapped into a restraint chair. There, guards held a towel over his head, literally suffocating him. Medical records later revealed that he had been shot with a stun gun at least 14 times and beaten so badly that his larynx cracked.
The county was forced to settle with Norberg’s family for $8.25 million. Astonishingly, says Norberg’s attorney, Mike Manning, Arpaio promoted the guards who did the beating.
Arpaio’s critics say Norberg’s death was far from an isolated incident. But there’s one reason the case continues to be talked about when so many other inmate deaths have fallen into obscurity: Scott Norberg’s family had enough money to hire a good attorney. Manning’s investigation showed that important records had been destroyed — including the X-ray of the cracked larynx. He also obtained the videotape that showed Norberg pleading for his life.
Even then, Arpaio managed to thwart a criminal investigation.
The sheriff’s internal affairs investigators, Manning says, failed to give deputies the proper warnings before interviewing them. That invalidated the evidence they had obtained. Even worse, internal affairs and criminal investigators sat in on the same interviews, which Manning says is strictly forbidden by most police agency policies.
“There is no doubt, no other explanation, than that they intentionally botched the investigation,” Manning says. “This kind of stuff was too stupid — too stupid even for them.”
Even so, then-County Attorney Rick Romley was anxious to prosecute jail employees. “Rick’s office was horrified at how the evidence was developing,” Manning recalls. “They were looking at least at manslaughter — and you also had destruction of evidence, the fact that they’d intentionally botched the investigation.”
But Arpaio had a trump card.
After Norberg’s death, Romley had instructed his staff not to give jail employees legal advice. He didn’t want his criminal investigation compromised by conflict-of-interest claims.
But as Romley’s investigation was heating up, he received a letter from his former employee Jack MacIntyre, who informed his old boss that, working for Romley in the aftermath of the jailhouse death, he had disobeyed Romley’s orders. MacIntyre had given legal advice to some deputies.
Worth emphasizing is that MacIntyre had left Romley’s office to work for Arpaio.
MacIntyre’s confession left Romley with a real conflict. He couldn’t prosecute people in the Sheriff’s Office, be they Arpaio or his deputies, when one of his own staffers had served as their legal counsel.
The top prosecutor was forced to recuse his office.
“There had been numerous attempts to get me to stop the investigation, but none of them worked until Jack MacIntyre was able to effectively get me off the case,” Romley says today. “To say that I was upset would be putting it mildly.”
Romley handed the case over to Arizona’s then-Attorney General Janet Napolitano, the same politician who, as U.S. Attorney, had downplayed the Justice Department lawsuit.
Napolitano closed the case without prosecution.
Although Arpaio’s office has always managed to avoid prosecution, someone always has to pay. And, in many cases, it’s been taxpayers.
As New Times first reported last week, Arpaio has cost Maricopa County a staggering $41.4 million in legal fees, insurance premiums, and payouts to jail-abuse victims. Arpaio’s track record is so bad that the county has been forced to switch to an insurance policy with a $5 million deductible. Insurance won’t cover a cent of any suit that settles for less than that.
Even beyond the pricey lawsuits, evidence suggests that the sheriff’s books are a mess. Every limited audit done of the Sheriff’s Office during Arpaio’s tenure, whether by the state or by the county’s in-house division, has found problems.
The problems have never risen to the level of criminality, as the sheriff’s supporters are quick to point out. Indeed, many of the sheriff’s financial missteps seem petty. But considering that the audits have covered only small areas of Arpaio’s budget, they raise the question of what a larger audit might reveal.
For example, in 1996, New Times writer Tony Ortega reported that the sheriff had misused jail enhancement funds. The money is administered by the state to assist with jail operations and to train detention officers. As the biggest county in the state, Maricopa gets more than $1 million from the fund annually.
Ortega found that Arpaio was using enhancement money for expenses that had nothing to do with jails, much less enhancing them. The sheriff used the fund to finance a lawsuit against the county Board of Supervisors in 1994, despite telling reporters that taxpayers wouldn’t get stuck with the bill. He had used it to send himself to National Sheriff’s Conferences. He had also paid for a video news-clipping service. Jail conditions be damned, Arpaio needed to watch himself on Nightline.
Ortega’s reporting triggered an investigation from the Arizona Auditor General, which echoed his findings. A total of $122,419 in expenditures “did not demonstrate that they ‘enhanced’ jail facilities and operations,” the auditors concluded. Their report specifically cited the news clipping service and the money Arpaio had spent on conferences.
But nothing seems to have changed. Since 2003, records show, Arpaio has spent $34,387 in enhancement funds on news clipping services. He’s also spent $345,644 of the fund to send employees to conferences and training seminars, records show. Employees were sent to classes for Photoshop, good grammar, and, of course, the National Sheriff’s Conference.
Dennis Matthiesen, financial audit director for the auditor general, says his office is unlikely to revisit the issue. “Our office doesn’t have any enforcement authority, whatsoever,” he says. “We find what we find and we report it.” From there, Matthiesen says, it’s up to the sheriff to make changes, or the Board of Supervisors to demand them.
And that hasn’t happened. Not only has Arpaio ignored the state auditor general, he’s also ignored the county’s in-house audit team.
In 2005, county auditors looked at how various agencies were handling travel expenses. The audit was so limited, it only looked at 24 trips involving the sheriff’s office, all of them extradition cases where deputies picked up fugitives in other states.
The auditors still found plenty of problems.
In more than half the cases, the deputies were booked to arrive on the scene by early evening, giving them time to rest before prisoner pick-ups the next day. But, the audit noted, “deputies often took an additional day before taking custody of the prisoner and returning to their duty posts.”
Deputies, apparently, were milking the taxpayers for beach time. When they picked up a prisoner in muggy Orlando, for example, the deputies stayed 119 miles away, in breezy Daytona Beach. The county got stuck paying for their mileage and an extra day at the hotel. The same pattern repeated itself in Myrtle Beach and Hawaii. (Weirdly, two deputies even chose to stay an extra day in Buffalo.)
The auditors concluded that, if the limited findings held true in a bigger sample, the sheriff could have saved $170,000 in 2005 alone by tightening travel policies.
But records suggest that everything is the same. In the year after the audit, the sheriff’s costs for training and travel increased 11 percent.
The audit dealing with overtime spending was even more dramatic. It found that overtime had escalated, even as the sheriff added employees to the payroll.
The problem was lousy management. Sheriff’s employees, the audit found, regularly write themselves down for overtime pay before they’ve even worked a full 40-hour week. (Stay late one night, and rather than cut hours later in the week, it’s an automatic bonus.) Management, the auditors wrote, did “not appear to have considered staggered or overlapping shifts, or other alternatives, to reduce premium costs.”
The audit suggests a certain chaos in jail operations.
Forty-three percent of sheriff’s office employees weren’t working in their budgeted departments, the auditors found. “[Employees] are frequently transferred between divisions, often without notice to applicable management.”
After the auditors finished in May, the Sheriff promised to make changes. Still, he finished the 2007 fiscal year (ending June 30) more than $10.4 million in the red for overtime, and in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, Arpaio already shot his entire overtime budget for the year. It’s clear that cost-saving measures were not a priority.
Today, county officials say they have control of Arpaio’s budget. A recent memo from the budget office suggests that, if Arpaio can continue his new and improved cost-cutting plan, he will finish the year in the black.
But the plan depends, in part, on keeping visitors out of the jails after 2:30 p.m. Defense lawyers say they’re going to do everything in their power to scuttle that.
So who can hold Sheriff Joe accountable?
Not the county attorney. Rick Romley tried, but he’s since retired, and his replacement, Andrew Thomas, is more interested in making nice with Arpaio than declaring war on him. Thomas and Arpaio even formed an anti-corruption task force designed to target public officials who screw up. Clearly, they have no interest in using their authority to investigate each other.
It can’t be the state attorney general, either. Democrat Terry Goddard is actually a target of the Thomas/Arpaio anti-corruption task force. Even after that investigation inevitably winds down, Goddard can hardly take on Arpaio without looking like he wants revenge.
What about the Justice Department? Its civil rights department doesn’t just monitor jails; it could also look at Arpaio’s treatment of his political enemies. And Justice has the distance to keep any investigation from getting mired in local politics.
Then again, that didn’t happen in 1996, when Janet Napolitano made her deal with the devil. And though rumors are rife that Justice investigators are eyeing Arpaio again, it’s not clear how much credence to give them.
That leaves the county supervisors.
The county’s organizational chart is not a linear model. It’s a series of bubbles, and Arpaio’s bubble is shown answering directly to the people, not to the supervisors.
But the supervisors manage Arpaio’s money. And with Arpaio’s budget problems in the news, it’s worth remembering what happened to Sandra Dowling.
County officials will tell you that Arpaio doesn’t answer to them. (Remember those bubbles.) They may quietly express distaste over his abuses of power and the millions he costs taxpayers, but they say it’s not their job to hold him accountable. He’s elected by the people.
But Dowling was also a bubble on the county organizational chart. As Superintendent of the Maricopa County Schools, Dowling also, supposedly, answered only to the people.
Like Arpaio, only a few short years ago, Dowling seemed unstoppable. She had been elected to five consecutive terms without any real competition. Her big innovation, the Thomas J. Pappas Schools for Homeless Children, had been celebrated by everyone from Oprah to 60 Minutes. The much-lauded schools were actually failing badly, but the media didn’t seem to care and neither did the voters. Dowling was flying so high, she actually asked the district’s lobbyists to see whether George W. Bush was interested in her services.
That was then.
In 2005, Sandra Dowling’s school district went over budget. She asked the county supervisors for an extra $2 million.
That’s when Dowling’s charmed political life came to an abrupt end. The supervisors demanded the district’s financial records, and when Dowling didn’t produce the detailed documentation they wanted, the board obtained a subpoena and sent officers to force her to turn it over. Even though Dowling had just been audited a few years before, in 2004, county auditors were again assigned to look at her books. By May 2006, they completed a 118-page report detailing a host of problems: misspending, faulty bid processes, nepotism. The supervisors then hired three educational consultants to help close the Pappas Schools — an idea Dowling bitterly contested.
In November 2006, Dowling was indicted on 25 felony counts. (Ironically, it was the Sheriff’s Office that did the investigation.)
It’s unclear what will ultimately happen with the criminal case. The U.S. Attorney, who’s prosecuting, recently dropped a number of the charges; Dowling still awaits trial on the others.
What is clear is this: When the county supervisors chose to take on Sandra Dowling, Dowling was finished.
Contrast that with their treatment of Arpaio. Despite the sheriff’s abysmal record in every area that auditors have examined, the county has yet to order a comprehensive audit.
There’s reason for that. Because the sheriff’s $241 million budget is the biggest in the county, such an audit would undoubtedly require the entire 18-member audit staff working for months on end.
“It would take the board to come and tell us they wanted us to spend our resources onto such a big audit,” says County Auditor Ross Tate. “They haven’t done that.”
Jim Bloom, chief of staff for Supervisor Andy Kunasek, echoed Tate. “If we were to audit the Sheriff in totality, it would take not only our entire audit staff, but a lot of his staff, too,” he says. “It wouldn’t make any sense. If we did an audit that big on his operations, in the meantime, we wouldn’t be doing an audit on anyone else.”
New Times left repeated messages over a weeklong period with Supervisors Max Wilson, Don Stapley, Fulton Brock, Andy Kunasek, and Mary Rose Wilcox.
Not one of them called back with a comment.
The will to stop Arpaio simply isn’t there. But Sandra Dowling’s quick fall from power holds an obvious lesson: Whether the supervisors want to admit it or not, there is a way.