- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2014

PHOENIX (AP) - A political feud among county officials in metro Phoenix that led to a spate of costly lawsuits and unsuccessful public-corruption investigations against some participants in the disputes has cost taxpayers $38 million.

County officials on Monday released the nearly final price tag for the disputes that mired county government from 2006 through 2010 when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and then-County Attorney Andrew Thomas squared off against county officials and judges. The disputes centered on cuts to agency budgets, a plan to build a new court building complex and other issues.

Arpaio and Thomas lost most of the key battles. While Arpaio and Thomas loomed large in many of the disputes, other public officials also took part in power struggles that, in some instances, didn’t involve the sheriff or prosecutor.

The disputes escalated into criminal investigations that Arpaio and Thomas launched against officials and judges who were at odds with them. In the end, criminal cases against two officials and a judge were dismissed amid criticism that they were trumped up, and investigations of other officials ended without any charges being filed. Arpaio and Thomas contended they were trying to root out corruption in county government.

County taxpayers have shelled out $7.7 million to settle lawsuits brought by officials and others who alleged they were wrongfully targeted in the criminal investigations conducted by Arpaio and Thomas. The county paid another $5.5 million to defend itself in the lawsuits. Another settlement for $975,000 with a county official has been appealed by the county. Taxpayers also picked up the tab to defend Thomas in an attorney-discipline case arising out of the investigations.

Arpaio aide Jack MacIntyre said county officials who were at odds with the sheriff contributed considerably to the mass of litigation and said the settlements of some claims arising out of the failed investigations were financial decisions meant to keep down costs.

While Arpaio’s office investigated the officials, MacIntyre said the decision to file cases in court rests not with the sheriff but with the prosecutor. “Joe Arpaio - every time I have looked - has never had the authority to prosecute anyone,” MacIntyre said.

Thomas, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment early Monday afternoon.

While Thomas and another prosecutor were disbarred, Arpaio went on to win his sixth term as sheriff in late 2012, marking the second-closest election in his 21-year political career. A federal grand jury conducted a nearly three-year investigation of Arpaio’s office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations and specifically examined the investigative work of the sheriff’s anti-public corruption squad. But the federal investigation was closed in September 2012 without any charges being filed.

Mike O’Neil, a Tempe pollster who has conducted surveys on Arpaio over the years, said it’s surprising at how little of a political price the Republican sheriff has had to pay with voters for the legal costs.

“He has survived stuff that would have sunk anybody else,” O’Neil said. “It comes down to, ‘I’m the toughest cop in town and the stuff I do is in pursuit of people you don’t like.’ He has played that mantra masterfully.”

Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, whose $975,000 settlement has been appealed by the county, said Thomas and Arpaio inflicted damage on the reputations of some political adversaries by bringing false charges that required them to spend their own money on lawyers to defend themselves.

Wilcox, who was charged with crimes that were later dismissed, said those who look unfavorably at government workers walking away with large settlements should consider how they would react to such a situation. “People need to put themselves in the place of the people who were prosecuted,” he said.

Arpaio’s office says the sheriff has been fiscally responsible and has had a total of $42 million in budget surpluses since 2003. Asked for a similar accounting for the first 10 years of Arpaio’s tenure, the sheriff’s office said it couldn’t provide such figures.

Records released by the county show the total taxpayer costs from county infighting to be $49 million. But some of the costs weren’t directly tied to disputes between county officials, including nearly $1.6 million to defend Arpaio in a racial-profiling lawsuit by a small group of Latinos and a $3.75 million settlement with two executives of the Phoenix New Times who were arrested by Arpaio’s office in 2007 for publishing information about a secret grand jury subpoena demanding information on its stories and online readers.

Aside from the criminal investigations, the disputes included an unsuccessful lawsuit by Arpaio and Thomas over a decision by county officials to transfer $24 million from county coffers to the state to balance the state’s budget during an economic downturn. The suit came as county officials were cutting budgets of the sheriff and prosecutor.

Thomas was dealt a blow when he lost a lawsuit against judges over the constitutionality of special courts for drunken-driving defendants who speak Spanish or American Indian languages.

Arpaio and Thomas filed but ultimately dropped a lawsuit alleging that county officials and judges conspired to hinder the criminal investigation by Arpaio and Thomas into the construction of a $340 million court building in downtown Phoenix and the criminal investigation of a county official.

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