The day after the federal government told Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio that he could no longer use his deputies to round up suspected illegal immigrants on the street, the combative Arizona sheriff did just that.
He launched one of his notorious “sweeps,” in which his officers descend on heavily Latino neighborhoods, arrest hundreds of people for violations as minor as a busted headlight and ask them whether they are in the country legally.
“I wanted to show everybody it didn’t make a difference,” Arpaio said of the Obama administration’s order.
Arpaio calls himself “America’s toughest sheriff” and remains widely popular across the state. For two decades, he has basked in publicity over his colorful tactics, such as dressing jail inmates in pink underwear and housing them in outdoor tents during the brutal Phoenix summers.
But he has escalated his tactics in recent months, not only defying the federal government but launching repeated investigations of those who criticize him. He recently filed a racketeering lawsuit against the entire Maricopa County power structure. On Thursday night, the Arizona Court of Appeals issued an emergency order forbidding the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office from searching the home or chambers of a Superior Court judge who was named in the racketeering case.
Last year, when Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon called for a federal investigation of Arpaio’s immigration enforcement, the Sheriff’s Office demanded to see Gordon’s e-mails, phone logs and appointment calendars.
When the police chief in one suburb complained about the sweeps, Arpaio’s deputies raided that town’s City Hall.
A local television station, KPHO, in a 10-minute-long segment last month, documented two dozen instances of the sheriff launching investigations of critics, none of which led to convictions.
The most notorious case involves county Supervisor Don Stapley, a Republican who has sometimes disagreed with Arpaio’s immigration tactics. Last December, deputies arrested Stapley on charges of failing to disclose business interests properly on his statement of economic interest.
Stapley’s alarmed supervisor colleagues had their offices swept for listening devices. Arpaio contended the search was illegal and sent investigators to the homes of dozens of county staffers to grill them about the sweep.
A judge in September dismissed several of the allegations against Stapley, and prosecutors dropped the case. Three days later, Arpaio’s deputies arrested Stapley again after he parked his car in a downtown parking structure near his office.
No charges were filed until County Atty. Andrew Thomas -- Arpaio’s ally in his fights with the supervisor -- charged Stapley this week with misusing money he raised to run for president of the National Assn. of Counties.
“It’s just extraordinary, the kind of thing that takes place in Third World dictatorships,” said Paul Charlton, a former U.S. attorney who is representing Stapley. He predicted the latest charges would also be dismissed. “So many people are of one mind on a single issue -- illegal immigration -- that they are willing to ignore these misdeeds.”
Arpaio brushes off suggestions that he’s used his office to go after critics. Many of the complaints, as in the Stapley case, come from targets of anti-corruption probes that started with tips rather than the sheriff’s personal intercession.
“We don’t abuse our power,” Arpaio said in an interview. “We do what we have to do.”
Arpaio, a Republican, is highly popular in Arizona. He won reelection last year with 55% of the vote in the state’s most populous county. Though he has said he’s not interested in running for governor, a recent poll showed him crushing the presumptive Democratic nominee, state Atty. Gen. Terry Goddard, 51% to 39%.
The sheriff was not always at war with much of the region’s political establishment. A former official with the Drug Enforcement Administration who was first elected sheriff in 1992, Arpaio had support from the majority-Republican county Board of Supervisors and from local Latino leaders.
“He had a very good relationship with the Hispanic community,” said Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, the lone Democrat and lone Latina on the board.
But by 2005, central Arizona was seething over illegal immigration. Crime was rising in Phoenix, a key smuggling hub that was becoming the kidnapping capital of the country.
Arpaio received a federal waiver, known as a 287(g), that allowed his deputies to enforce federal immigration laws. He said he had identified more than 30,000 illegal immigrants through his sweeps and interrogations in the county jail.
In October, the federal Department of Homeland Security revoked the 287(g) for Arpaio’s street operations, though he could continue to question jail inmates about their immigration status.
Arpaio, however, said state law permitted him to continue his street operations and is awaiting a legal opinion from Thomas, the county attorney.
Latino community leaders say Arpaio has become more aggressive since he was stripped of some authority in the 287(g) program.
“It’s actually gotten worse rather than better,” said Salvador Reza, an activist who added that some immigrants don’t dare turn the lights on in their homes at night for fear that Arpaio’s deputies would knock at their doors.
A Homeland Security spokesman declined to comment, referring a reporter to statements Secretary Janet Napolitano gave to a liberal advocacy group in Washington.
Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona, said Arpaio “was unwilling to accept that there were standards that needed to be met. He wanted to go off on his own. And so that’s where we had a parting of ways.” She acknowledged, however, that state law would allow him to continue making his arrests.
The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a civil rights investigation into Arpaio’s tactics. The sheriff has refused to cooperate and has called for an investigation of the investigators.
As Arpaio has fenced with the Obama administration, he has become embroiled in a sometimes-surreal battle with the five county supervisors who oversee his budget. Amid the recession, they have cut the sheriff’s budget by 12.2%.
Arpaio and Thomas filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against the county supervisors, administrators and several judges who have ruled against the two in prior cases.
Arpaio and Thomas contended there was a conspiracy to assign the Stapley prosecution to an anti-Thomas judge, part of an effort to cover up what they call a wasteful county effort to build a new courthouse.
County officials noted that Arpaio and Thomas have sued them six times in efforts to regain power over their budgets -- and they lost every time.
Tensions escalated this week when the county attorney filed criminal charges against the presiding judge of the county’s criminal courts, alleging bribery and obstruction of justice for ruling against Arpaio and prosecutors in some of those previous legal battles.
Wilcox, whom Thomas charged this week with violating state laws by voting on government contracts for a charitable organization that gave one of her businesses a loan, said she had been stunned by the sheriff’s conduct.
“They have made life hell on everybody,” she said of Arpaio and Thomas.“Every time you speak out, they investigate you.”
“Racketeering? That’s just crazy,” she added. “We’re becoming the laughingstock of America.”