PHOENIX — A political feud among county officials in metro Phoenix that
led to a spate of costly lawsuits and unsuccessful public-corruption
investigations against some participants in the disputes has cost taxpayers $38
County officials on Monday released the nearly final price tag for the disputes
that mired county government from 2006 through 2010 when Maricopa County Sheriff
Joe Arpaio and then-County Attorney Andrew Thomas squared off against county
officials and judges. The disputes centered on cuts to agency budgets, a plan to
build a new court building complex and other issues.
Arpaio and Thomas lost most of the key battles. While Arpaio and Thomas loomed
large in many of the disputes, other public officials also took part in power
struggles that, in some instances, didn’t involve the sheriff or prosecutor.
The disputes escalated into criminal investigations that Arpaio and Thomas
launched against officials and judges who were at odds with them. In the end,
criminal cases against two officials and a judge were dismissed amid criticism
that they were trumped up, and investigations of other officials ended without
any charges being filed. Arpaio and Thomas contended they were trying to root
out corruption in county government.
County taxpayers have shelled out $7.7 million to settle lawsuits brought by
officials and others who alleged they were wrongfully targeted in the criminal
investigations conducted by Arpaio and Thomas. The county paid another $5.5
million to defend itself in the lawsuits. Another settlement for $975,000 with a
county official has been appealed by the county. Taxpayers also picked up the
tab to defend Thomas in an attorney-discipline case arising out of the
Arpaio aide Jack MacIntyre said county officials who were at odds with the
sheriff contributed considerably to the mass of litigation and said the
settlements of some claims arising out of the failed investigations were
financial decisions meant to keep down costs.
While Arpaio’s office investigated the officials, MacIntyre said the decision
to file cases in court rests not with the sheriff but with the prosecutor. “Joe
Arpaio _ every time I have looked _ has never had the authority to prosecute
anyone,” MacIntyre said.
Thomas, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, didn’t
immediately return messages seeking comment early Monday afternoon.
While Thomas and another prosecutor were disbarred, Arpaio went on to win his
sixth term as sheriff in late 2012, marking the second-closest election in his
21-year political career. A federal grand jury conducted a nearly three-year
investigation of Arpaio’s office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations and
specifically examined the investigative work of the sheriff’s anti-public
corruption squad. But the federal investigation was closed in September 2012
without any charges being filed.
Mike O’Neil, a Tempe pollster who has conducted surveys on Arpaio over the
years, said it’s surprising at how little of a political price the Republican
sheriff has had to pay with voters for the legal costs.
“He has survived stuff that would have sunk anybody else,” O’Neil said. “It
comes down to, `I’m the toughest cop in town and the stuff I do is in pursuit of
people you don’t like.’ He has played that mantra masterfully.”
Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, whose $975,000 settlement has been appealed by the
county, said Thomas and Arpaio inflicted damage on the reputations of some
political adversaries by bringing false charges that required them to spend
their own money on lawyers to defend themselves.
Wilcox, who was charged with crimes that were later dismissed, said those who
look unfavorably at government workers walking away with large settlements
should consider how they would react to such a situation. “People need to put
themselves in the place of the people who were prosecuted,” he said.
Arpaio’s office says the sheriff has been fiscally responsible and has had a
total of $42 million in budget surpluses since 2003. Asked for a similar
accounting for the first 10 years of Arpaio’s tenure, the sheriff’s office said
it couldn’t provide such figures.
Records released by the county show the total taxpayer costs from county
infighting to be $49 million. But some of the costs weren’t directly tied to
disputes between county officials, including nearly $1.6 million to defend
Arpaio in a racial-profiling lawsuit by a small group of Latinos and a $3.75
million settlement with two executives of the Phoenix New Times who were
arrested by Arpaio’s office in 2007 for publishing information about a secret
grand jury subpoena demanding information on its stories and online readers.
Aside from the criminal investigations, the disputes included an unsuccessful
lawsuit by Arpaio and Thomas over a decision by county officials to transfer $24
million from county coffers to the state to balance the state’s budget during an
economic downturn. The suit came as county officials were cutting budgets of the
sheriff and prosecutor.
Thomas was dealt a blow when he lost a lawsuit against judges over the
constitutionality of special courts for drunken-driving defendants who speak
Spanish or American Indian languages.
Arpaio and Thomas filed but ultimately dropped a lawsuit alleging that county
officials and judges conspired to hinder the criminal investigation by Arpaio
and Thomas into the construction of a $340 million court building in downtown
Phoenix and the criminal investigation of a county official.