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Arpaio's Shakespearean troubles should surprise no one

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What the Devil won't tell you

Arpaio's Shakespearean troubles should surprise no one

Pride, hubris, irony — it's all there as sheriff seeks mercy from law

  • Cronkite News file photo

That the man who bills himself as America's Toughest Sheriff would be facing the prospect of starting his retirement in prison seems less ironic than inevitable.

The Sheriff Joe Arpaio™ action figure has always come with a free Shakespearean starter kit.

Arpaio last week admitted to U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow that he kinda sorta investigated the judge's wife. Oops. Keeping with standard public relations no-drama crisis management protocol, Arpaio's chief deputy Jerry Sheridan challenged with the "define investigate" counterpunch.

The answer was not "Oh, hell no! We went nowhere near your wife." Arpaio and Sheridan both admitted to the meat of the contempt charges but used the same defense that's worked before: "Gee whiz, we had no criminal intent." How many pot smokers could have said the same as Arpaio subjected them to conditions later ruled unconstitutional but bought him global acclaim from a hang-em-high public?

So Arpaio is hoping for liberal leniency and mercy from a legal authority in a superior position to him. Inset jokes here, because leniency and mercy are exactly what Arpaio has sought to avoid during his 23 years in office — to enormous acclaim from a buying public.

Somewhere up there, the Bard is saying "Oh, I gotta write this down."

Down here in Tucson, where Arpaio's shadow can almost block out the sun, I'm wondering if the press and public in Phoenix failed to learn how tragedies of hubris work.

"Conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe"— Richard III

The man began his fall almost the moment he started to climb, the moment he was elected to the post of Maricopa County Sheriff, because he never had any interest in the actual job of county sheriff. At first he was more interested in what people thought was his job.

A sheriff does not typically oversee the bulk of the battle against crime in a county. That's a police chief.

A jail is not where hardened criminals go to serve their time. That's a prison.

This is the sheriff's job: police unincorporated parts of county and run the jail. That's it. Maricopa County is almost entirely incorporated into cities and towns. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik has more unincorporated residents to police than Arpaio. Some cities do contract with the Sheriff's Office to provide policing. Think Queen Creek and not South Phoenix.

When Arpaio was elected in 1992, crime was one of the great issues concerning voters and one of the public paranoias was that prisoners had it too good. So Arpaio would be the great many's avenging angel. He wanted dreadful conditions, and he wanted the public to know that he wanted as many prisoners as he could get, so he put a "vacancy" sign over the tent city.

The crowd went wild. The federal courts would rule the conditions unconstitutional. But who cares? The bad guys were finally getting their just desserts.

He wanted all the kids to see what happened when they did something wrong — society would show no mercy.

The jail was his masterpiece, and he used it to play to the public's fears of crime in the 1990s. Then there were the soft-on-criminals programs such as "work furloughs" and inmates who had color televisions in their cells. Arpaio's inmates would get tents in searing desert heat, be fed "food salvage" and a daily ration of humiliation and well, what's two wrongful death suits costing the county $14 million when the people dig you?

The majority of Arpaio's inmates have been legally presumed innocent, awaiting trial. The bulk of the rest were misdemeanor offenders. They had two tickets out: Get convicted of a felony and move into the more professionally run medium and maximum security prisons (which Arpaio's jail was meant to protest); or be acquitted, which means he just abused an innocent person to please the crowd.

In Arpaio's head and in the collective conscious, Arpaio was sticking it to the worst of the worst, even if he wasn't. Didn't matter. He was going to do the job of chief prelate against the sinners even if that's not a sheriff's duty. Beware whomever feels their job description is below their pay grade and knows they can't be fired.

Arpaio proudly has no conscience on this subject — a problem for him because the law is rooted in the same right and wrong that guides conscience. Once an officer of the law jettisons that in performing their duties, they can't help but start to drift against the grain of the law itself. It's inevitable. Then the He-Man approach of making enemies and daring them to "do something about it" becomes prophecy.

"Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous." — Julius Caesar

Another key to a good Shakespearean downfall is to make as many enemies as humanly possible. Wonder what they are up to and what they are trying to pull in opposing you. Play hardball. Send deputies to investigate them. Find an ally in a prosecutor's office and drop him when he's disbarred. All the while, let your enemies know they are powerless to stop you because you have the backing of the crowd.

As the decade turned and Nirvana turned into Creed, so too did public opinions shift away from bitchslapping shoplifters, drunk drivers and those yet found guilty of nothing. So Apraio took up the previously ignored issue of illegal immigration and became a partner with the Department of Homeland Security in fighting off the perceived invasion.

None of that leaves much time for focusing on investigating actual crimes.

Reports began to show that Arpaio's actual job of investigating crimes among the citizens were getting little attention. The conservative Goldwater Institute and the East Valley Tribune reported that Arpaio's office was giving short-shrift to the kind of crimes the public no longer found interesting. Their reporting found Arpaio's office as particularly disenchanted with rape cases. America's toughest sheriff would close a case if the suspect chose not to show up for interrogation. There was just no glory in it anymore, and according to the Goldwater Institute just 18 percent of crimes presented to Arpaio's office were cleared by arrest. 

So much for having a conscience on behalf of crime victims.

Meanwhile, he had gone off on his enemies. Four Maricopa County Superior Court judges, three members of the Board of Supervisors, three county staffers, three New Times journalists, one former NT journalist and the mayor of Phoenix have all been raided, investigated or won harassment settlements over Arpaio's investigations. 

The sheriff was found to have misused millions of dollars of restricted money for purposes other than what they were restricted to, including money for jail improvements and paying salaries. While federal prosecutors declined to charge him, unable to find "criminal intent," they found the substance of the case held water. The prosecutors thought Arpaio would seek a grant to spend money on his jail? Did they not get his first 1,000 press releases on how he was as likely to spend money on his jail as he was to fund a re-elect Obama super PAC? "Arpaio" is Italian for "Dear God, spend nothing on our jail." 

Then there is poor James Sawville, whom a jury found to have been the victim of an entrapment episode, that suggested Arpaio was the victim of a staged assassination plot to prove himself tougher than the killers out to get him. It cost the county $1 million that we know about (the rest is undisclosed). It would seem the jury thought Arpaio believed an assassination attempt would get him re-elected.

A lot of this was made possible by a new partner in — well, crime — who teamed up with Arpaio to bring any manner of charges against any who would do him wrong. Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas liked to investigate those who just so happened to stand in their way on charges of, get this, abuse of power. The biggest upshot of Arpaio's paranoia was the $44 million these investigations cost the taxpayers. Oh, and Thomas got disbarred. Arpaio blamed the prosecutions on Thomas, but the county attorney didn't jail reporters or send officers to strong-arm the mayor of Phoenix.

Question: How is not using commissioned officers as an arm of personal political retribution not abuse of power? How is that not a felony? He's been more trouble than he's worth.

"Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't." — Hamlet

To the casual observer, that Arpaio is going down just seems inevitable. To his supporters, which includes most of the state's voters, Arpaio is the victim for having dared to challenge the racket of illegal immigration. Go get 'em, Joe.

Arpaio is just that big. Do the names Bill McDonnell, Tom Dart or Joseph Fucito ring a bell? They are the sheriffs of Los Angeles, Cook (Chicago) and New York counties. History won't likely remember their names.

But Arpaio blasts globally. His office at one point had three detectives working the sex crimes unit. His media relations team has five pros on the job. He seemed to love it. The governor's office has long been his for the taking, but who needs a job that requires compromise and efficiency? He had the roar of the crowd with the kind of toughness that dares anyone to do anything about it.

He kept picking fights further and further up the chain asking "who wants some?" because he is that much of a real man. Problem with that approach is that it just takes one agent up that food chain to say "I'm your Huckleberry (shoutout, Tombstone)" to bring you down. I know enough about U.S. attorneys and federal judges to know when you keep playing to the crowds telling officers of the court: "You got nothing, Screw your law!" they ... want ... you ... bad.

So in 2007, Arpaio's office got sued for racially profiling a Mexican tourist who was in the country legally.

Here's how seriously he took it, during a 2009 deposition, recorded eloquently by the New Times Stephen Lemons and with a glorious ironic twist on the end from a Wikipedia writer:

Arpaio testified he had never read the complaint in the case, was unfamiliar with the details of the allegations of racial profiling therein, didn't know the content of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and had never read the Department of Justice's guidelines concerning the use of race in investigations, which would have applied to his deputies in the field when they were still operating under a 287(g) program agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He insisted, however, that his deputies didn't profile based on ethnicity or race.

Note: If you don't know the rules of pass interference, how do you know you never did it? He had no idea what racially profiling was legally but he knew he didn't do it. A sheriff not knowing the 14th Amendment is like an engineer not knowing the first few digits of pi.

Federal Judge Murray Snow found that there was racial profiling and ordered Arpaio to do A, B and C to stop it. 

They had to, for instance, install video cameras in patrol cars. During a training session caught on camera, Sheridan — sorry, this is just funny — called Snow's ruling both "ridiculous" and "crap." 

Some might suggest that contempt of court definition goes like this: 1) Calling a judge's orders ridiculous. 2) Calling a judge's orders crap.

No, no, no, Arpaio told the judge, as reported by the Arizona Republic, “This court order slipped through the cracks."

Contempt of court definition 3) Having so little regard for a judge's order it falls through the cracks.

The heres and theres are almost beside the point. By now Arpaio and his chief deputy are so busy mainlining public approval that no one is going to stand in their way of doing what they want, when they want to whomever they want.

So we're just going Biblical, i.e., Proverbs, 16:18: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."

Shakespeare can work with that.

However, as Snow considers forwarding criminal contempt charges, knowing Arpaio and Sheridan considered his wife fair game, he may want to ask: If they have no respect for a judge holding them by the short hairs, what respect do they have for anyone else they can intimidate with a gun?

Should Snow refer criminal charges on Arpaio the irony will be much noted. At age 82, any sort of sentence could be life in prison. Yet this is how Arpaio has conducted himself, all but declaring the only way to get him out of office is to take him out in handcuffs. Judge Snow, the ghost of a 16th century playwright is awaiting your move.

"I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself, and falls on the other." —MacBeth

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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