At a big news conference in downtown Phoenix on Thursday, the Justice Department’s top civil rights lawyer described Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office as an agency out of control.
“At its core, this is an abuse of power case,” assistant attorney general Thomas Perez said while announcing a massive civil rights lawsuit against the Arizona lawman.
But despite the tough talk, the reality is that little in the sheriff’s office is likely to change anytime soon because, as Perez acknowledged, the lawsuit could take years to resolve.
For Phoenix immigrant rights activist Salvador Reza, the news was something less than exciting. Reza is a longtime critic of Arpaio who was mentioned, though not by name, in the Justice Department’s lawsuit as one of his many victims. Reza was arrested by Arpaio’s deputies twice in 2010, including once for simply standing across the street from the sheriff’s news conference. The lawsuit said it was a classic case of retaliation.
“Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s good that our Justice Department is actually doing something,” Reza told TPM. “But they could have done a lot more.”
Reza questioned why it took the Justice Department four years to get to this point, given that investigation began in 2008 under the Bush administration. He also wanted to know the status of the federal criminal investigation into the sheriff’s alleged abuse of power, which has been going on nearly as long.
For an activist like Reza, a criminal investigation represents the best hope of removing the sheriff from office. Arpaio is running for his sixth term in office this year and won his last election in 2008 amid even earlier allegations that he used his law enforcement power to retaliate against political enemies. “Arpaio is really a menace to society,” Reza said. “Anywhere else he would be in jail.”
While the two probes are separate inside the Justice Department, there was at least some indication on Thursday that the civil investigators have paid attention to allegations of criminal wrongdoing.
The 32-page complaint detailed incidents in which Arpaio and his allies, including former elected prosecutor Andrew Thomas, used their offices to launch investigations and file charges against judges and other government officials who criticized them.
Last month, an Arizona Supreme Court disciplinary panel stripped Thomas of his license to practice law because of the crusade. In its ruling, the panel said there was evidence to conclude “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Thomas, Arpaio and two other officials participated in a criminal conspiracy under federal law.
The civil rights suit mentioned the ruling and gave special note to the conspiracy allegation. Perez, however, declined during the news conference to discuss any criminal investigation.
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com