The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee wants Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to investigate whether the office of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio used federal grant money to illegally detain Hispanics, whom the government alleges were the victims of racial profiling.
If so, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, wants the Justice Department to consider ways of getting the money back - a total that could exceed $25 million.
"I urge the department to take all appropriate steps to determine whether taxpayer dollars have been used in connection with the detention of individuals whose civil rights have been violated," wrote Mr. Leahy in a letter Tuesday to Mr. Holder.
Mr. Leahy said the Justice Department has estimated that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in Phoenix has received more than $25 million since 2000 under the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) as reimbursement for the costs related to the detention of illegal immigrants.
Last week the Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and Sheriff Arpaio alleging, among other things, that the sheriff and his deputies abused Hispanic inmates and engaged in ethnic profiling.
The lawsuit charges discriminatory and unconstitutional law enforcement actions against Hispanics who are frequently detained and arrested on the basis of race, color or national origin; discriminatory jail practices against Hispanic inmates with limited English skills; and illegal retaliation against critics.
The charges against America's self-described "toughest sheriff" came in the wake of a breakdown of negotiations between the Justice Department and the sheriff's office over the appointment of a court monitor, who would have overseen the office's handling of those it arrests and detains, and directed operations regarding its enforcement programs and actions.
Sheriff Arpaio has refused to relinquish control of the office, saying it would nullify the authority of the elected sheriff, "eviscerating the will of the citizens of Maricopa County." He also has denied the allegations and said the breakdown in negotiations was the fault of the Justice Department.
On Tuesday, Mr. Leahy said in a statement that he was "troubled" by the allegations, which came after a lengthy investigation by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and were announced by Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez.
"Until the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has demonstrated to the department that it has addressed and corrected the misconduct found by your investigation, I ask what steps the department is taking with respect to current requests for SCAAP funding," the Vermont Democrat wrote.
The Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance administers SCAAP in conjunction with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security. It provides federal payments to states and localities that incurred correctional officer salary costs for incarcerating undocumented criminal aliens with at least one felony or two misdemeanor convictions for violations of state or local law.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office has said that 22 percent of felonies in the county are committed by illegal immigrants.
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