Federal Grand Jury Targets ‘Tough-Guy’ Sheriff
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- America's self-proclaimed "toughest" sheriff Joe Arpaio is facing a grand jury investigation into allegations of abuse of power.
The Maricopa County sheriff has made national headlines because of his immigration sweeps on Latino neighborhoods and a pending investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into racial profiling allegations.
But that's not the focus of the recent criminal investigation.
"Racial profiling is the least of his problems right now," said Lydia Guzmán, president of the Somos America coalition, a civil rights group in Arizona that has filed a civil lawsuit against his office on the matter.
Guzmán and other immigrant rights activists applauded the investigation as a positive step to bring to an end what she described as "Arpaio's reign of terror" on immigrant communities. Yet, she recognized that the scope of the grand jury investigation most likely involved other allegations of abuse of power and misuse of federal funds.
"Everything can be tied together," said Salvador Reza, organizer of the PUENTE immigrant rights movement, referring to Arpaio's alleged violations of human and civil rights during his immigration sweeps. He is organizing a march Jan. 16 against the criminalization of immigrants and political figures who have been critical of the sheriff's office.
"If he were to be indicted for abuse of power, that could extend to look at the way he conducts his enforcement of immigration, too," he added.
A grand jury is formed by a group of local residents that hears secret testimony to decide whether or not there's sufficient evidence to issue an indictment and go to trial. Most attorneys agree that is too soon to tell what the outcome of the grand jury might be or if the sheriff - famous for forcing inmates to wear pink underwear - could end up behind bars himself.
Sheriff Arpaio has been uncharacteristically silent on the subject.
"I'm not going to talk about grand jury investigations," he told New America Media. "I'm going to say we're going to continue to do our job and continue with our investigations."
Maricopa County Manager David Smith and Assistant Manager Sandi Wilson were the first to come forward last Thursday to reveal that they were preparing to testify in front of a grand jury Wednesday.
Wilson said based on her discussion with the U.S. Attorney's office, the grand jury will focus on abuse of police powers, threats to employees, budget negotiations, the county's courthouse project, and deputies' questioning of employees at their homes.
"I'm relieved that somebody is finally looking at the abuses we're dealing with," she said in an interview with New America Media.
Wilson was told last February during discussions with the sheriff's office over budget cuts that she was under criminal investigation.
For the last two years, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas have been engaged in budget and power fights with other county officials.
In December 2009, the county attorney filed a broad civil racketeering complaint against judges, attorneys, elected officials and administrators, including Wilson and Smith, alleging that they were all involved in a conspiracy. The RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) lawsuit contends that the group was working to provide funding for a new court tower in exchange for illicit services and blocking criminal prosecutions of those involved in the suit.
Some of those under investigation believe that they have been targets of retaliation for being vocal opponents of the sheriff's practices toward immigrants.
Mary Rose Wilcox and Don Stapley, both members of the county board of supervisors, were indicted on separate charges related to perjury and fraud.
"I think the reason the sheriff has been so punitive against me is because of my stance on immigration," said Wilcox. She traveled to Washington, D.C., last spring to lobby for an end to the 287(g) programs that give sheriff's offices the power to conduct immigration sweeps. "I have a sense of relief that finally the feds are paying attention. You can't predict what would happen but it wouldn't have gone so public if there wasn't a lot there."
Civil rights attorney Daniel Ortega said that from a legal standpoint, it is premature to speculate on what might come out of the grand jury investigation.
"From a political standpoint," he said, "I think is a good thing to finally see somebody taking action to find out what's going on with the sheriff's department, as well as the county office to determine if prosecutions are politically based."
If the grand jury determines there is sufficient evidence of a pattern of abuse, the sheriff's office could be indicted, according to former Maricopa County attorney Rick Romley.
But Romley, an outspoken critic of Arpaio, added that it is impossible to know whether Arpaio himself - currently in his fourth term as sheriff -would be directly charged or removed from his position.
"It is very good news for the public," said former Arizona U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton, who is currently the defense attorney for Supervisor Stapley. "Much of the information related to the vindictive nature of the investigations launched by the sheriff's office will have to come to light through witnesses and documents."
Sandi Wilson, who will be going before the grand jury as a witness tomorrow, said she would like to "see the abuses stop."
"I would like to come to my job and not think about being terrorized, or having whatever decision I have made be criminalized," she said.
"My children have come from other countries, and I always felt like I brought them to America to have a good life," said Wilson about her three adopted children. "I don't feel like I live in America any more."