The Justice Department filed a lawsuit Thursday against “America’s toughest sheriff,” Joe Arpaio in Phoenix, accusing him, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and the county of refusing to fully cooperate in a federal investigation into allegations that he and his deputies are guilty of racial discrimination.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, is the latest chapter in a bitter feud between Justice and Sheriff Arpaio, who is accused of failing to turn over documents sought since March 2009 that federal prosecutors say comply with its probe of alleged discrimination, unconstitutional searches and seizures, and English-only policies in his jails that discriminate against those with limited English skills.
Sheriff Arpaio, during a press conference in Phoenix, described the lawsuit as “harassment,” saying thousands of pages of documents have already been turned over by his office to federal prosecutors.
“These actions make it abundantly clear that Arizona, including this sheriff, is Washington’s new whipping boy. Now it’s time to take the gloves off,” he said.
“As for today’s lawsuit against my office: These people in Washington met with my attorneys only a few days ago. And in that meeting, Washington got our cooperation; they admitted they already have thousands of pages of the requested documents; and they were given access to interview my staff and get into my jails. They smiled in our faces and then stabbed us in the back with this lawsuit.”
Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the Civil Rights Division for the Obama administration, said the sheriff’s office declined repeated requests to turn over documents or meet with investigators.
“The actions of the sheriff’s office are unprecedented,” Mr. Perez said. “It is unfortunate that the department was forced to resort to litigation to gain access to public documents and facilities.”
But Sheriff Arpaio’s attorneys, Robert Driscoll and Asheesh Agarwal, both former deputy attorneys general in the Civil Rights Division at Justice during the Bush administration, said federal investigators were politically motivated, citing a news conference in March at which Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was quoted as saying he expected the Justice inquiry to “produce results.”
“While we have no quarrel with the assistant U.S. attorneys handling the investigation, the attorney general’s comments appear to violate federal regulations, departmental policy and state ethical rules designed to ensure the fairness of criminal investigations,” Mr. Agarwal said.
Mr. Driscoll said the DOJ suit speaks loudly by what it does not say.
“It does not allege that Sheriff Arpaio or the MCSO have discriminated against anyone because the DOJ, after 18 months of soliciting allegations against Sheriff Arpaio, has come up empty,” he said.
The lawsuit is the newest twist in a continuing battle involving Arizona officials and the federal government. The Justice Department already has filed a suit challenging a law passed in Arizona giving state and local police the right to arrest anyone reasonably suspected of being an illegal immigrant, claiming the legislation is pre-empted by federal law.
The Justice Department, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, has maintained that immigration laws are a federal responsibility.
In a statement, the Justice Department said Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in programs that receive federal funds and also requires grant recipients to cooperate with investigations of discrimination by providing access to documents, facilities and staff.
The department said the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office signed contractual assurance agreements as a condition of receiving federal funds and promised it would cooperate with investigations of alleged discrimination. It said the lawsuit was filed after the department exhausted all cooperative measures to gain access to the documents and facilities, as part of its investigation.
“Since March 2009, the department has attempted to secure voluntary compliance with the department’s investigation,” it said. “MCSO’s refusal to cooperate with the investigation makes it an extreme outlier, and the department is unaware of any other police department or sheriff’s office that has refused to cooperate in the last 30 years.”
The sheriff, first elected in 1992 and re-elected four times since, said the Obama administration “intended to sue us all along, no matter what we did to try to avert it,” adding that “it’s time Americans everywhere wake up and see this administration for what it really is: calculating, underhanded at times and certainly not looking out for the best interests of the legal citizens residing in this country.”
State Sen. Russell Pearce, the Republican lawmaker who authored the immigration bill, called the Justice Department’s actions a “witch hunt.”
“This is the game that’s played,” he said. “They couldn’t find any violations … that’s why it’s broad, that’s why they’re very vague about what they want. It doesn’t take a very high IQ to figure out what’s going on with these folks.”
The Justice Department investigation has focused on allegations that Sheriff Arpaio and his deputies engaged in “discriminatory police practices and unconstitutional searches and seizures,” along with allegations that his jail discriminated against Hispanic inmates. The inquiry also has targeted allegations that bilingual jail guards were required to speak to inmates only in English.
About $113 million the Maricopa County government received from the federal government last year accounted for about 5 percent of the county’s $2 billion budget. The lawsuit listed $16.5 million of funding provided the sheriff’s office through several programs.
Last year, the federal government stripped Sheriff Arpaio of his special power to enforce federal immigration law, although he continued to conduct law enforcement sweeps through the enforcement of state immigration laws.
The sheriff’s office has said half of the 1,032 people arrested in the sweeps have been illegal immigrants.