America's Worst Sheriff: Arpaio Faces New Corruption Scandal

May 04, 2011 4:30 pm ET — Jamison Foser

Joe Arpaio

The way Maricopa County (AZ) Sheriff Joe Arpaio is running his office, he may need to add a few more cots in his infamous "tent city" for himself and his staff. Arpaio, who likes to call himself "America's Toughest Sherrif" — a reputation he parlayed into a television series on Fox Reality Channel — has long skirted the line between "lawman" and "lawless," drawing widespread criticism for his abusive treatment of inmates, embrace of racial profiling, and alleged misuse of taxpayer money. Now Arpaio faces a growing corruption scandal and new allegations of rampant racism in his office.

Yesterday, Arpaio accepted the resignations of two top deputies, David Hendershott and Larry Black — described by other Arpaio staffers as his "inner, inner circle" — amid allegations of corruption. Deputy David Hendershott's resignation followed a Pinal County investigation that reportedly found Hendershott had used official funds to take his family on an eight-day trip to Alaska and took $18,000 from a Sheriff's posse foundation to pay for his son's basketball tournament.

Hendershott is reportedly under investigation by the U. S. Attorney's Office and the Arizona attorney general for misuse of public funds and other potential crimes. He has allegedly conducted "politically motivated probes" of, among others, county supervisors with whom Arpaio has clashed, and funded a political action committee that has been investigated for its actions in support of Arpaio's 2008 re-election. Hendershott and Black allegedly "tried to obstruct justice, tamper with witnesses and destroy evidence after they learned the Arizona Attorney General's Office was investigating" the PAC. And an Arizona Attorney General's Office report "alludes to evidence uncovered that Hendershott asked a cell-phone representative to destroy evidence of potential campaign crimes, and asked a Verizon rep to 'write a false document that indicated no bad credit with Verizon in order to facilitate the financing for his home.'"

Hendershott has long been Arpaio's right-hand man. According to the Phoenix New Times, "In 1999, Arpaio allowed Hendershott to quit, begin collecting a pension of $51,000 annually, then get rehired to his same position at the same $120,000 salary." According to a memo to Arpaio from Deputy Chief Frank Munnell laying out allegations against Hendershott, Arpaio "ceded control of the department to Hendershott" after Arpaio was re-elected in 2008.

But some former Arpaio employees suggest that efforts to portray Arpaio as having ceded operation of the department to Hendershott are simply attempts to insulate Arpaio from fallout from scandals. Tom Bearup, Hendershott's predecessor as Arpaio's top aide, says, "Joe knows everything that goes on. ... I've been there. And I know that nothing goes on in that office without [Arpaio's approval]. Every policy he initialed. Anything major that happened, people would go and tell him, because they felt intimidated." Another former aide, Roy Reyer, suggests Munnell's memo to Arpaio was a ploy to set Hendershott up to take the fall for misdeeds Arpaio knew all about.

In any case, the Hendershott and Black resignations are just the latest in a long line of scandals and mismanagement on Arpaio's watch. Just last month, Arpaio's office was accused of misusing $99 million in taxpayer funds that were supposed to be used for county jails but were instead used for other law enforcement activities including immigration patrols. The diversion of funds intended for county jails is particularly notable in light of the inhumane conditions in which Arpaio keeps prisoners. 

The U.S. Department of Justice has criticized the use of excessive force in Arpaio's facilities, leading to a settlement agreement limiting the use of pepper spray, stun guns, and restraint chairs. Lawsuits over Arpaio's treatment of prisoners have resulted in tens of millions of dollars in settlement fees and judgments, including a case in which the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed a finding that Arpaio was deliberately indifferent to the risk of violence in a "tent city" he established to house prisoners outdoors in the harsh Arizona heat. Among the others detailed in a 1999 CNN article:

In January, the county settled a wrongful-death suit filed by the family of Scott Norberg for $8.5 million. He died, reportedly of asphyxiation, as he struggled with prison guards in 1996.

In April, a jury awarded $1.5 million to an inmate denied medical treatment for a perforated ulcer. Tim Griffin, arrested for driving with a suspended license, required several surgeries for the perforated ulcer. 

Another former inmate suing Arpaio, Richard Post, a paraplegic, claims guards treated him brutally and caused spinal cord damage. 

Arpaio, who has also settled a civil suit with the U.S. Department of Justice over jail conditions, brushes off charges of brutality.

Reuters has detailed other harsh conditions:

Most inmates are serving sentences of a year or less for relatively minor convictions or are awaiting trial because they could not make bail. 

They wear pink underwear and black and white striped uniforms. Around 2,000 inmates live in tents under the blazing Arizona sun in temperatures which last summer often exceeded 120 degrees Fahrenheit . Even in mid-October, it was over 100 degrees. 

"I got meal costs down to 40 cents a day per inmate. It costs $1.15 a day to feed the department's dogs. Now, I'm cutting prisoners' calories from 3,000 to 2,500 a day," the sheriff said during a recent tour of his tent city. 

"Do you hear me?" he asked the inmates who surrounded him. "You're too fat. I'm taking away your food because I'm trying to help you. I'm on a diet myself. You eat too much fat." 

Several prisoners told Arpaio they often received rotten food. "The cheese is old. The meat has green spots. And the heat kills you," said Tom Silha, 42, serving nine months for fraud. 

Arpaio told him he didn't care. "If you don't like it, don't come back," he said. But jail spokeswoman Lisa Allen McPherson said that 60 percent of inmates did in fact come back for more than one term. 

One way Arpaio keeps costs for inmates' food so low — in addition to serving rotten green meat — is limiting them to only two meals a day.

And those immigration patrols Arpaio diverts jail money to? They feature "anti-illegal immigration" sweeps in Hispanic neighborhoods that are conducted "without any evidence of criminal activity, violating federal regulations intended to prevent racial profiling." Those sweeps led to a U.S. Justice Department investigation into widespread allegations of racial profiling and violating the civil rights of minorities in Maricopa County — an investigation with which Arpaio refused to cooperate. Just last month, a federal judge ruled that Arpaio's office violated the rights of two Latinos detained for three hours without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. 

Meanwhile, Arpaio's obsessive focus on tracking down undocumented immigrants has reportedly come at the expense of meeting emergency-response responsibilities. A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the East Valley Tribune found Arpaio's office "often neglected regular law enforcement work during its hurried evolution into an immigration enforcement operation" and "Deputies are failing to meet the county's standard for response times on life-threatening emergencies. In 2006 and 2007, patrol cars arrived late two-thirds of the time on more than 6,000 of the most serious calls for service."

Arpaio does, however, have some fans: He's quite popular among the "White Nationalists" at Stormfront.org, and Mitt Romney named him honorary chair of his failed presidential campaign in 2007.

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