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The Enduring Sins of Joe Arpaio: Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin Speak Out in Response to Trump’s Pardon of America’s Worst Sheriff

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Stephen Lemons
Written by Stephen Lemons

Last month in Arizona, in a move that surprised few, U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton formally validated President Donald Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County.

Arpaio had been convicted in July for criminal contempt for ignoring a federal judge’s order stemming from a 2007 racial-profiling lawsuit. The pardon came weeks before he was to have been sentenced.

Bolton’s ruling closes the latest chapter in the long-running Arpaio saga, which 10 years ago this fall included the outrageous arrests of former Phoenix New Times co-owners Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin. Under Lacey and Larkin’s stewardship, New Times relentlessly covered, and often exposed, the scandals that punctuated the sheriff’s 24-year reign. A decade after being jailed by the rogue lawman, Lacey offered a concise appraisal of his longtime foe.

“Rex Tillerson was right: Donald Trump is a moron and his pardon of Joe Arpaio proves it,” Lacey said.

“This is the perfect marriage of two corrupt individuals,” Lacey added. “This is a sheriff who advertised torture and racism. God, look at the grim parade of corpses and mutilated bodies that came out of that jail of his.”

Lacey ticked off a litany of lowlights from Arpaio’s six terms in office: Brutal jail conditions, including a tent city the sheriff referred to as his “concentration camp.”

Beating deaths. Inmate suicides. The illegal diversion of more than $100 million in jail funds. Hundreds of sex-crime cases, many involving children, botched by poor or nonexistent investigations. And the brazen harassment of Latinos that gave rise to Melendres v. Arpaio, the class action that resulted in Arpaio’s criminal conviction.

Even if Trump hadn’t stepped in, few believed Arpaio, who turned 85 in June, would have spent a single day behind bars.

“That’s a failure in the justice system,” Lacey said. “It ends up with contempt of court because he ignores a judge’s instruction, as opposed to being held accountable for the people who were killed, the people who were tortured, the prisoners who were abused. People’s lives and careers were attacked and derailed.

“It’s a pretty stunning trail of evil. I don’t know how else you can describe that kind of behavior.”

If anyone could recite from memory the sins of Arpaio, it would be Lacey and Larkin, whose persistent scrutiny of “Sheriff Joe” earned them a trip downtown in handcuffs in October 2007, courtesy of the sheriff’s goons.

Over four decades, the two Arizona State University dropouts leveraged a campus paper, born out of anger over the 1970 Kent State killings, into a coast-to-coast chain. With Larkin as CEO and Lacey as executive editor, at its height Village Voice Media comprised 17 publications, including its New York City namesake. (Larkin and Lacey sold the company to its present owner, Voice Media Group, in 2013.)

To those unfamiliar with Arpaio’s résumé, a full accounting would fill a small library.

Elected to office in 1992 as a reform candidate, the retired Drug Enforcement Administration official remade himself as “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” attracting press coverage by forcing inmates to don pink underwear and striped jumpsuits, feeding them green bologna and rotten fruit, dispatching female chain gangs to tidy up county roads, and deputizing volunteer “posses” — some consisting of armed citizens — to do his bidding.

Arpaio’s antics were so brazen that his top flack once referred to her boss as a “media whore.” But behind the stunts lurked the sadism and corruption that New Times revealed, examples of which include:

• Arpaio’s infamous Tent City, opened in 1993 to address jail overcrowding. Summertime temperatures in the encampment could reach 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Indoors, meanwhile, prisoners endured mistreatment: Disobedient inmates were savagely beaten, expectant mothers shackled to their beds while they gave birth.

• An untold number of wrongful deaths, including a diabetic woman who slipped into a coma after being denied her medication (a case Lacey documented), a mentally ill Army veteran killed in what his attorney called a “jailer’s riot,” and others who suffocated after detention officers confined them in restraint chairs. (In these same cells, inmates were found to “hang themselves … at a rate that dwarfs other county lockups,” as Lacey reported in 2015.)

• Arpaio’s misuse of his authority to investigate, arrest, smear, and prosecute critics and rivals, from political opponents to the state attorney general to members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. The sheriff launched an investigation into President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, insisting it was a forgery. And during the Melendres proceedings, he paid a confidential informant in Seattle to investigate the presiding judge, G. Murray Snow. (It wasn’t his first go-round with a jurist, either.)

• And, starting in 2007, the unconstitutional actions that led to Melendres: Ordering his deputies and posses to round up Latinos so as to determine whether they were in this country illegally and thus subject to deportation.

Over the years, Arpaio responded to New Times’ incessant attention by banning its reporters from his press conferences, putting off or ignoring the paper’s requests for county records, and threatening its reporters with arrest.

Looking back, it seems inevitable that the conflict would escalate beyond a war of words.

“We were a constant thorn in his side,” said Larkin, who wrote for the Phoenix paper before taking over its operations in the early 1970s. “I think that’s why Michael and I got arrested.”

The two men were hauled away from their homes in handcuffs on October 18, 2007, under cover of darkness — and Third World-style, by plainclothes detectives in unmarked cars with Mexican plates.

At the end of the day, that sort of racist, brutal, cracker philosophy appealed to enough voters that a joker like Trump thinks there’s some political traction to be had by pardoning the guy- Michael Lacey

The path that brought the sheriff’s minions to their respective doors that night can be traced back to 2004, when New Times published a column by investigative reporter John Dougherty revealing how Arpaio was concealing his and his wife’s ownership of several parcels of commercial real estate then reportedly valued at nearly $700,000 — a large outlay for a public servant then making $78,000 a year. Arpaio, Dougherty had determined, had availed himself of an Arizona statute that allows law-enforcement officials and judges to have their names redacted from real-estate records for their personal safety.

The only address that was widely available to the public was that of the Arpaios’ own domicile — which New Times duly published in one of Dougherty’s columns.

Enraged, the sheriff embarked on a three-year quest to have Dougherty prosecuted under an obscure statute that makes it a felony to publish a law-enforcement official’s address on the internet if doing so poses “an imminent and serious threat.” (Publishing the same information in print is not prohibited.)

Hours after the edition hit Phoenix’s streets, sheriff’s detectives arrested Lacey and Larkin at their homes. The two men were charged with misdemeanors for revealing grand jury secrets — i.e., for breaking a law that exists in order to protect the reputations of the accused.

Public response to the arrests was immediate and ferocious, crossing political and cultural lines. There were stories in USA Today, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Arizona Supreme Court Justice Clint Bolick, who at the time was director of the conservative Goldwater Institute’s Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, issued a statement saying the only place for “friends of freedom” was standing “shoulder to shoulder with New Times.”

The tsunami of outrage forced the hand of Andrew Thomas, Maricopa County’s county attorney, and an Arpaio ally. Less than 24 hours after the arrests, Thomas called a news conference to announce that the arrests were improper and that the case was closed. Larkin and Lacey sued. In late 2013 the board of supervisors voted to pay them a $3.75 million settlement.

He was a terrible sheriff, a terrible jailer…but he was a great fucking politician, and I actually think he was a precursor to Trump- Jim Larkin

Melendres v. Arpaio’s cost to Maricopa County citizens — $70 million to date — makes that $3.75 million look like a free box of doughnuts.

When he ruled on Melendres in 2013, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow found that Arpaio’s agency had engaged in racial profiling on a massive scale. He ordered a litany of reforms and appointed a monitor to see that they were implemented. On July 31 of this year, Judge Bolton found Arpaio guilty of defying that order. Had Trump not intervened, the former sheriff — who’d been unseated at the polls by his Democratic opponent the previous November — could have been sentenced to up to six months behind bars.

In retrospect, one can’t help wondering whether Arpaio, always a wily reader of political wind shifts, sensed that 2016 was the end of the road and executed an exit strategy. He endorsed Trump’s presidential candidacy in January of that year, a time when most were mocking the notion that the boorish billionaire would secure the GOP nomination.

“He was a terrible sheriff, a terrible jailer,” Larkin said of Arpaio. “But he was a great fucking politician, and I actually think he was a precursor to Trump. He may have ridden Trump’s coattails to a pardon, but in winning the election, Trump followed him. It’s hard to admit that because I don’t respect Arpaio for anything other than his political acumen.”

Lacey believes Trump granted the pardon mainly to pander to his base: nationalists who view Arpaio — a man who called Mexicans “dirty” in an interview with GQ magazine and who told nativist commentator Lou Dobbs that he considers it an “honor” when his enemies refer to him as a Ku Klux Klan member — as a hero.

“At the end of the day, that sort of racist, brutal, cracker philosophy appealed to enough voters that a joker like Trump thinks there’s some political traction to be had by pardoning the guy,” Lacey said.

He points out that Arpaio had no interest in rounding up immigrants until 2005, the year the sheriff’s deputies arrested a vigilante named Patrick Haab for holding seven undocumented men at gunpoint at a highway rest stop.

County Attorney Andrew Thomas refused to prosecute Haab, and Arpaio initially was livid. “You don’t go around pulling guns on people,” the sheriff declared. “Being illegal is not a serious crime. You can’t go to jail for being an illegal alien.”

Upon seeing that local Republicans sided with Thomas, however, Arpaio changed his tune. He and Thomas soon formed an alliance that melded a law-and-order agenda with an appeal to anti-immigrant paranoia.

But Lacey believes there’s a limit to how much of a bump Trump stands to gain from letting Arpaio skate.

“Trump’s approval rating is down around 30 percent,” Lacey said. “And that 30 percent is going to like what he did. But the rest of us are never going to forget it.”

With the $3.75 million Maricopa County paid them to settle their Arpaio suit, Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey formed the Lacey and Larkin Frontera Fund, which gives grants to migrant-rights organizations throughout Arizona. They are returning to journalism with the launch of Front Page Confidential, a website that covers threats to free speech and the First Amendment. This story’s author, former New Times reporter and columnist Stephen Lemons, will write for the new website.