Arpaio claims hands-off role in corruption cases

AP News

10/18/2011 6:51:57 PM - AP News

The self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America prides himself on being in charge and accountable. On Tuesday, he acknowledged that he didn't closely follow his office's public corruption investigations.

Asked to name the evidence against three public officials whose cases were thrown out, Sheriff Joe Arpaio repeatedly said he farmed those and other corruption cases to his then-top assistant.

"I have 4,000 employees. I delegate," said Arpaio, who was subdued and tired looking from the flu at an ethics hearing for ally and former county attorney, Andrew Thomas.

Lawyers pressing the case said officials, judges and attorneys who crossed the Maricopa County sheriff and Thomas in political disputes were often targeted for investigations and, in some cases, criminally charged.

Both men say they were trying to root out corruption. County officials say the probes were baseless.

The sheriff's testimony comes at a time when a federal grand jury is investigating abuse-of-power allegations against him and the federal government is conducting a civil rights probe of his immigration patrols.

As the controversy swirls around Arpaio, he has in recent weeks played host to a stream of Republican presidential hopefuls who want his endorsement.

Arpaio wouldn't face any punishment if Thomas is found to have violated ethics rules, but a judge, attorney and church rector who are on the ethics panel could render the first official comment from the state's legal establishment on the validity of the investigations.

If an ethics panel finds that Thomas violated professional rules of conduct, he could face a wide range of punishments, including an informal reprimand, censure, suspension or disbarment.

Tuesday's testimony was the first time that Arpaio has been called into court to explain his role in the investigations, though he has testified about the investigations in earlier depositions.

Arpaio, who has a knack for publicizing investigations, was asked about quotes attributed to him in news releases from Thomas' office about the failed cases. In one, he said: "When one fails to do so, one must be held accountable."

"If it's in quotes, it's my quote," Arpaio testified.

Arpaio said he recalled few details about the failed investigations and noted that he attended only three or four meetings held by his own anti-corruption squad that investigated the cases.

County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox was accused of voting on contracts involving a group that had given her loans and never filing conflict-of-interest statements. Colleague Don Stapley was accused of getting mortgage loans under fraudulent pretenses.

And Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe was charged with hindering prosecution, obstruction of justice and bribery.

All three cases were dismissed after a judge ruled that Thomas prosecuted one of the three officials for political gain and had a conflict of interest in pressing the case.

Donahoe was charged in December 2009 after he disqualified Thomas' office from an investigation by Arpaio and Thomas' offices into the construction of a court building in Phoenix.

Although he attended a private meeting at Thomas' office over whether to charge Donahoe, Arpaio couldn't recall any evidence for the crimes that the judge was charged with.

Last week, David Hendershott, Arpaio's former No. 2 official, testified that some of the allegations brought against the judge weren't crimes, though he believed that other allegations against Donahoe were criminal violations.

Hendershott declined to comment on Arpaio's testimony.