Arizona Sheriff Arpaio Says Politics Are Behind Federal Probes of His Office

By Carrie Johnson and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 30, 2009

The lawyers representing a controversial Arizona sheriff who is under investigation for his treatment of Latino residents accused officials in the Justice and Homeland Security departments yesterday of political motivations in pursuing probes against their client.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joseph M. Arpaio and his office, which have drawn widespread attention for an unorthodox approach to crime and punishment, are the focus of three federal investigations into whether they violated federal rules or civil rights laws in pursuing illegal immigrants.

The four-term sheriff rose to national prominence in the early 1990s for his tough-on-crime policies, including a mandate that prisoners don pink underwear, work on chain gangs and live in canvas tents. Arpaio also restricted inmates' access to coffee and television and served them only two meals a day to slash costs, according to his Web site.

Yesterday, Arpaio's attorneys wrote to Obama administration officials, questioning whether investigators followed ethics rules in launching the probes this year.

Robert N. Driscoll, a District-based lawyer for Maricopa County who served as a civil rights official at the Justice Department early in the George W. Bush era, said he was seeking "assurances that political rivalries and score settling played no role in the investigations."

In his letter, Driscoll said that a civil rights probe of the Arpaio operation began in early March, weeks after four influential Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee called for an investigation into alleged discrimination and possible constitutional violations in arrests and in police searches and seizures.

The investigation appeared on a list of accomplishments the Justice Department prepared for reporters in April, after the Obama administration had been in office 100 days. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has said that reinvigorating the enforcement of civil rights laws is a high priority.

The civil rights unit at the Justice Department has itself been a focus of intense interest. In a report this year, the department's inspector general uncovered ideological motivations behind the hiring and transfer of career lawyers during part of the Bush administration.

Driscoll wrote in his letter, referring to the sheriff's office, "When one law enforcement agency becomes subject to three federal investigations in a matter of weeks immediately after a shift of political control in Washington, it is difficult not to speculate that politics played a role in the decision or that policy differences related to hot-button topics such as local law enforcement's vigorous enforcement of immigration related crimes are being litigated through enforcement actions."

He asked that investigators working on the case be reminded that no conclusions have been reached about legal violations by Arpaio and the sheriff's office and that politics should play no role in their decisions.

Alejandro Miyar, a Justice Department spokesman, said officials there will review the letter.

"Because this matter is open and ongoing, we cannot comment on the investigation other than to restate that career professionals in the Civil Rights Division began looking into this last year, and the Department made the decision to open this investigation in the same manner we make every such decision, based on the facts and the law," Miyar said.

Amy Kudwa, a Homeland Security spokeswoman, said that the department will review the letter from Arpaio but that its probe is a "a broad evaluation of the program as part of the Secretary's overarching review of all immigration and border security programs and policies. It is not an investigation."

Arpaio's attorneys also accused the Justice and Homeland Security departments of violating legal ethics rules by working together to gather documents and witness statements without appropriate notice to the Maricopa County sheriff's unit, although the attorneys said they were told the probes would "operate completely independent of each other." They asked that the Justice Department's office of professional responsibility, which investigates legal ethics allegations, investigate the matter.

The letter is likely to be the first in a series of testy exchanges between Arpaio and the federal officials investigating him. He has feuded with several other elected officials in Arizona, including county supervisors and administrators and Attorney General Terry Goddard (D). Last year, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon (D) asked for a federal investigation of possible civil rights abuses by Arpaio's office.

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