With Local Probes Roiling, Sheriff Joe Arpaio Settles With Feds

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In his home county, officials are investigating the outspoken Arizonan's fiscal mismanagement and the ways he targeted a politician

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Reuters/Joshua Lott


America's (so-called) "most famous" lawman, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, did a prudent thing Thursday when he settled a civil rights lawsuit brought by the federal government against him and his Maricopa County, Arizona law enforcement colleagues. And by "settled" I really mean Sheriff Arpaio "gave the feds what he was legally required to give them months and months ago and what every law enforcement office in the country ought to give promptly when asked to do so by the Justice Department."

Washington agreed to dismiss its lawsuit after Arpaio finally gave federal investigators access to records -- and to hundreds of individuals who were then questioned about the sheriff office's treatment of Hispanic suspects and prisoners. When the feds first filed suit, last September, they said that the Sheriff's refusal to make those resources available "makes [Maricopa County] an extreme outlier ... the Department is unaware of any other police department or sheriff's office that has refused to cooperate in the last 30 years." Now, federal investigators will cull through the material to determine whether further action against Arpaio is required. Don't bet against that.

When a Justice Department lawsuit is the least of your worries, you know you're in big trouble.

Why did Sheriff Joe, the man who loves to rail against federal authority, stand down so completely from this particular confrontation with the feds? You mean, aside from the fact that he was legally required to do so? The answer is easy. He has much bigger and more serious problems to deal with at home. First, Sheriff Joe and his team are the focus of an intense investigation by Maricopa County officials into fiscal mismanagement at the sheriff's office -- The Arizona Republic reported in April that the sheriff cooked his books to the tune of nearly $100 million. Evidently, Sheriff Joe was paying his employees out of the budget that was supposed to be used to pay for housing local prisoners.

If that were the only headache Sheriff Joe had around town it would be enough. $100 million here. $100 million there. Pretty soon it's real money, right? But there's more. Sheriff Joe and his team also are the focus of a comprehensive investigation by law enforcement officials from neighboring Pinal County who have been looking into allegations that Sheriff Joe and an ally unfairly targeted for prosecution a local politician who had opposed their controversial policies.

On Thursday, right around the time that federal officials were gleefully announcing news of their settlement with Arpaio over disclosures in the civil rights case, an Arizona judge ordered Arpaio to turn over to the court by this coming Monday an unredacted report from the Pinal County investigation. The report is 1,022 pages long with tens of thousands of supporting documents and, soon, some of its details are going to be made public. It won't likely be pretty for Sheriff Joe. 

In the circumstances, then, can anyone fault Arpaio for rolling over in the federal case? When a Justice Department lawsuit is the least of your worries, you know you are truly in big trouble. Can it be that Arpaio's 15 minutes of fame, which have lasted for decades in Maricopa County, may soon be coming to an end?

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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