Federal lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio

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By Brent Whiting

The federal government wants to know whether the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office discriminates against people of Hispanic origin.

At least that’s the thrust of an unprecedented civil-rights lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice seeking court-ordered access to MCSO records that may shed light on alleged discrimination in law-enforcement practices and jail operations..

It’s a high-stakes legal drama that will play out in U.S. District Court in downtown Phoenix, about 15 miles from the campus of Glendale Community College, one of many Valley places where the impact of the lawsuit may be felt.

Maricopa County officials claim that because of the lawsuit, an estimated $113 million in federal funding that is received by the county may be at risk.

That includes nearly $50 million in public health funds that may be distributed to recipients throughout the county, including qualifying GCC students, according to Don Stapley, chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

“Maricopa County will work to uphold the taxpayers’ interest in this matter,” Stapley said. “We hope the DOJ request can be resolved quickly so that the health and welfare of our community will not be negatively impacted.”

Arpaio’s refusal to cooperate with the investigation could jeopardize future federal funding, which requires government agencies, such Maricopa County and the sheriff’s office, to comply with civil-rights laws, according to county officials. The lawsuit was filed Sept. 2 by the civil rights division of the Department of Justice under provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Maricopa County and Sheriff Joe Arpaio were named as defendants in the federal action.

On Sept. 13, DOJ lawyers followed up with a motion asking a federal judge to issue a speedy order to force Arpaio and his office to provide immediate and full access to records being sought as part of an18-month civil-rights investigation.

In the meantime, Arpaio, a former federal drug-enforcement agent, has denounced the lawsuit as an attempt by the Obama Administration to make him and Arizona “Washington’s new whipping boy” because of Arizona immigration policies. “Now it’s time to take the gloves off,” Arpaio said in a statement that was released to the press shortly after the filing of the lawsuit.

“These people in Washington met with my attorneys only a few days ago,” Arpaio said. “And in that meeting, Washington got our cooperation.”

Lawyers for the Department of Justice admitted receiving thousands of pages of requested documents and that they were given access to interview staff members of the sheriff’s office and given access to county jails, Arpaio said.

“They smiled in our faces and stabbed us in the back with this lawsuit,” Arpaio said. “The Obama Administration intended to sue us all along, no matter what we did to try to avert it.”

On the other hand, Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said that actions of the sheriff’s office are “unprecedented,” thus forcing the federal government to take legal action.

The investigation of Arpaio’s office is based on concerns of alleged discrimination against Hispanics, in violation of federal civil-rights law, Perez said.

“It is unfortunate that the department was forced to resort to litigation to gain access to public documents and facilities,” Perez said.

Robert N. Driscoll, a lawyer for Arpaio in Washington, D.C., described the lawsuit as part of a deliberate strategy by the Department of Justice to “undermine immigration enforcement by a local sheriff who is trying desperately to make up for this administration’s own indifference to the topic.”

The lawsuit can be viewed as an attempt to obscure the fact that the federal agency “has no case” against Arpaio and the sheriff’s office, Driscoll said.

For its part, the Department of Justice claims in court papers that it has engaged in “exhaustive efforts” for more than a year to secure voluntary cooperation by Arpaio and the sheriff’s office in the ongoing civil-rights investigation.

The lawsuit was filed more than a year after Arpaio held a July 2009 press conference to announce that he would not cooperate with the federal government, according to a motion for summary judgment filed by the Department of Justice. The civil-rights investigation on the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office “remains open and ongoing,” according to the Department of Justice.