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The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio

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In the past decade, hundreds of lawsuits, ranging from wrongful deaths in Arpaio's jails to unlawful arrests, have been brought against the sheriff's office. Far from saving money with Arpaio's on-the-cheap Tent City, Maricopa County has been forced to shell out more than $50 million to defend itself against lawsuits brought by the sheriff's victims – including nearly $1 million awarded to one of the county supervisors who was illegally targeted by Arpaio's anti-corruption unit.

Arpaio, for his part, refuses to acknowledge the validity of any of his critics. They're all Democrats and political opportunists, he says, "trying to make a buck."

The morning after Joe Arpaio learns about the Justice Department lawsuit, he holds a pre-emptive press conference at a police-training center on the outskirts of town. His staff had labored until midnight to complete a brochure detailing new guidelines for improving community relations. The cover image is of a Latino family petting a police dog.

"The sheriff is a model of community outreach," Arpaio's deputy proclaims at the press conference. "He's a very public person."

But if the brochure is meant to make nice with Latinos – and neutralize the rationale for the Justice Department's lawsuit – you wouldn't know it from Arpaio's grim visage as he sits listening to the presentation. When a local reporter asks about a comment Arpaio made in a deposition, dismissing complaints by Latinos as "civil rights crap," Arpaio gets visibly agitated.

"Do you really think I'm going to hide and not talk anymore?" he asks. "No. I love dealing with the Hispanic community!"

Last December, the Justice Department released findings from a three-year investigation into Arpaio's office, publishing a 22-page report of numerous instances of racial profiling and civil rights abuses. Instead of filing a lawsuit, prosecutors requested that Arpaio accept a federal monitor inside his office to observe his operation, something the Justice Department successfully tried with the Los Angeles Police Department in 2001. Arpaio refused to cooperate, claiming that the feds didn't have any evidence. "After they went after me," he bragged to an audience at an anti-immigration fundraiser, "we arrested 500 more just for spite."

The same day the Justice Department released its report, Homeland Security stripped Arpaio of his power to jail and deport illegal immigrants on behalf of the federal government. The sheriff vowed to keep going after immigrants by arresting them for things like minor traffic infractions and then turning them over to be deported. He also dismissed the Justice Department report as a political move by the Obama administration, meant to curry favor with Latinos in the upcoming presidential election. "I think they had this planned," Arpaio says. "Hispanic vote. Election year. I'm the poster boy."

The morning after Arpaio's press conference, when the Justice Department's lawsuit is officially filed, federal prosecutors hold their own press conference, across the street from the sheriff's office. Tom Perez, the attorney for Justice's civil rights division, makes a point of calling Arpaio's new community-outreach brochure "an admission of the existence of a problem."

"At its core," he says, "this is an abuse-of-power case." The lawsuit includes allegations that Arpaio sought to "punish" critics "for their criticism and to prevent future criticism," including false and unethical prosecutions of political enemies and arrests of people who had expressed disagreement at county board meetings "by applauding."

Sitting in his office later that morning, Arpaio dismisses Perez as trying to score points with Latinos. "How did he open?" asks Arpaio. "'Buenos días!' Now, why would you open a press conference in Spanish? Why? 'Buenos días!' It doesn't matter. He's talking to the media and the public. Why is he saying 'buenos días'? Are we in Mexico here?"

Arpaio likes to hand out copies of the letter he received from the Justice Department in March 2009 informing him of the investigation, pointing to it as proof that the move is a political hit job by Obama. In reality, the investigation was set in motion during George W. Bush's final term, but it wasn't formally announced until the spring after Obama was elected. Perez adds that the fact-finding began well before he arrived in office, prompted by years of press reports and complaints from individuals and organizations in Arizona over abuses by Arpaio and his men.

As an elected official, Arpaio has had no check on his power other than the voters of Maricopa County, who have consistently looked the other way as evidence of abuses mounted, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the local East Valley Tribune that detailed Arpaio's practice of racial profiling. The sheriff's office, which cooperated with the newspaper, was "operating so blatantly that they didn't mind if a reporter was around while they were doing really bad policing," notes George Gascón, the former police chief in Mesa.

Arpaio is similarly brazen about the Justice Department lawsuit, promising to eviscerate the claims before a jury. "They're gonna have to come up with witnesses and all the information they keep saying they have, which they won't give to us," he seethes. "So we'll see 'em in court." He calls the Justice Department's evidence of civil rights abuses "isolated incidents, and we can tear that apart too."

Perez promises that the Justice Department isn't bluffing. "We never file a lawsuit that we're not confident we can prove," he says. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is a crisis of confidence in many corners of the Maricopa County community. They're supposed to unite communities, not divide communities. This is a divided community."

I did it myyyy way...

It's Joe Arpaio's cellphone. After the Justice Department's press conference, he is ready to bask in the limelight.

"Hey, Neil Cavuto! I love ya, Neil," Arpaio says, winking at me while taking a call from the Fox News host. "You know me, I'm Italian like you are. We talk, talk, talk... I miss you, Neil. How come you don't call me on good stuff, like when I lock up animal abusers?"

Arpaio has planned another press conference for after lunch. On two separate occasions, he's made a point of telling me that when he enters a Mexican restaurant, the staff runs out the back door – his idea of a joke about illegal immigrants working in kitchens. When I ask him to show me, he agrees – even insisting his deputies take us to a "dangerous" restaurant. Instead, we drive to a chain place called Garcia's, where Arpaio is greeted as a conquering hero by aging white diners with dentures and canes. A silver-haired man with Pall Malls in his pocket flags Arpaio at the entrance: "'Sup, Joe. Good to see you!"

When a Latina waitress brings Arpaio his iced tea, he eyeballs it suspiciously. "Is it safe?" he asks, tilting his head toward the kitchen. "Anybody recognize me in there?" Then he whispers out of the side of his mouth: "Don't tell the cook I'm here."

"I just know we lost half of the employees," the waitress laughs, clearly in on the staff-running-out-the-back-door joke.

Last year, as scrutiny by the Justice Department began to heat up, Arpaio announced that he was launching an investigation into the authenticity of Barack Obama's birth certificate, ostensibly on behalf of an Arizona Tea Party group that signed a petition requesting he look into it as a matter of law enforcement. "I'm not doing this for politics," he insists over lunch. "No politician will talk about it. So I know that's a risk too. If you want to call it a risk. But I did it. I stand by it. Regardless of the politics."

Joining us for lunch is Mike Zullo, an investigator from Arpaio's "cold-case posse," who has been tasked with "clearing the president" of any wrongdoing. Over tacos and enchiladas, Zullo tries to make the case that the official seal on Obama's long-form birth certificate the White House issued last year is fishy. "We have run this through over 500 different tests, trying to get computer software to do this, to replicate it, and it cannot be done," he says. "There's major problems. There's major implications for this."

"If things go right," Arpaio chimes in, the birther investigation "should take us into the White House."

How often do Arpaio and Zullo discuss this investigation? I ask.

"A lot," says Zullo.

Zullo goes on to claim that there is a "nationwide news blackout" of the issue, including at Fox News. He says the network's owner, Rupert Murdoch, was pressured by Democratic donor and Republican bogeyman George Soros to never discuss the issue on air – or else the Obama administration would revoke Murdoch's broadcast license.

"It's been told to me that Murdoch is petrified over this," says Zullo. "Fox will not touch it."

When we get back to his office, Arpaio immediately does an interview with Fox News in which he talks to the correspondent about the birther investigation. In July, Arpaio goes on to make headlines everywhere by claiming – without introducing any actual evidence – that he has officially proved Obama's birth certificate is fraudulent.

And the conspiracies don't end there. Arpaio insists that the Justice Department's accusations, starting last December, have all been timed to divert attention from public-relations problems for Attorney General Eric Holder, including the controversy over the botched gun-running sting known as Operation Fast and Furious.

So it's all orchestrated? I ask.

"Orchestrated," says Arpaio, savoring the word. "I like that."

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