America’s Most Cowardly Sheriff

The owners of The Village Voice were thrown into jail last night, and I wish I could say that it was my fault. Instead, I have to give that credit to my former Phoenix New Times colleague, John Dougherty.

It was Dougherty who, in 1993, first pointed out that the then brand-new sheriff of Maricopa County (which includes Phoenix), a clown named Joe Arpaio, was a menace. But over the years 1995 to 1999, that beat was all mine.

By late 1995, two years into his tenure, Arpaio had already perfected his shtick as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” He craved the attention of out-of-town journalists like the rest of us crave oxygen, and to get it, he turned the county’s jails into a sideshow.

Arpaio’s big lie was that he was tough on criminals. But even the most cursory attempt at real reporting revealed a very different truth: Arpaio not only endangered the lives of inmates—most of whom were simply awaiting trial, and the majority of the rest serving time on traffic violations—but he also endangered his own employees with his policies and wasted county money and resources on attention-getting nonsense. And, increasingly, he was becoming a very, very paranoid despot.

I managed to uncover stories about deaths in Arpaio’s jails, assaults on inmates (including one paraplegic inmate whose neck was broken by sadistic guards), and the dirty tricks that “America’s Toughest Sheriff” aimed at his political opponents—despite the fact that Arpaio blocked every one of our (perfectly legal) public-records requests and fired employees whom he even suspected of speaking to New Times.

When I moved to New Times Los Angeles in 1999, John Dougherty returned to the Arpaio story and really turned up the heat. Though the constant parade of television journalists arriving breathless with admiration for Arpaio’s “courage” never slowed, Dougherty pressed ahead with the real story: that there has hardly been a more untrustworthy politician in Arizona, and perhaps in the rest of the country as well.

Taking advantage of post-9/11 privacy statutes, for example, Arpaio had convinced the county to remove from public view records of the million-dollar commercial real-estate transactions he was making. How, Dougherty wondered, was a modestly paid county sheriff making those kinds of deals? Arpaio blocked every attempt to answer that question, and then did something even more outrageous: He convinced the county attorney to charge New Times and Dougherty with a felony for including his home address in the Internet version of a story about his real-estate dealings.

As New Times pointed out, that address is available in multiple places on the Internet from various official and government sources that anyone, to this day, can access.

Taking advantage of a pliant county attorney and the thug he’s hired to go after New Times, Arpaio is waging a war against my former colleagues’ First Amendment rights. Although Dougherty has since moved on and I’m now editor of The Village Voice, New Times journalists Steve Lemons and Paul Rubin and editor Rick Barrs continue to expose Arpaio for the megalomaniac that he is.

In the 14 years that those of us at New Times have spent countering the bad journalism done by countless sycophantic reporters who have bought into the sheriff’s fraudulent reputation, we never had to be told that the owners of our company, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, fully support us.

And that was never made more clear than last night, when Lacey and Larkin were hauled off to Arpaio’s jail after daring to speak out about the sheriff’s latest outrage: Through the county attorney’s lapdog, a grand jury has been conned into doing Arpaio’s dirty work. Although it was technically illegal to do so, Lacey and Larkin went public in a story this week about the draconian subpoena that New Times has been hit with, which calls not only for records about every story the paper has written about Arpaio, but also the identities and other information about every person who has ever looked at the New Times website since 2004.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in D.C., has described the subpoena as “frightening in its scope.” Even those reporters who may have bought Arpaio’s line of bull in the past must see what an abuse of power this is, and how it threatens the journalism being done by papers that dare to question public officials.

I hope my colleagues in the press understand how important this battle is.

 
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