Before he was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the Justice Department on Friday, Sheriff Joe Arpaio liked to dismiss the investigation into him and his office as little more than a partisan witch hunt. But the very documents announcing the end of the probe undercut the sheriff’s claims.
Arpaio has long argued that the probe began shortly after President Obama took office and was nothing more than a powerful Democrat targeting a lowly Republican sheriff. He waved off reports, like one in the Arizona Republic, that pieced together interviews and documents showing the investigation likely began in 2008 under the Republican administration of George W. Bush.
Even in celebrating his victory late Friday, the Arizona lawman picked a timeline that fit his theory, boasting on Twitter that the “3 year case against my office” had been closed.
But Arpaio is wrong. The investigation has been going on longer than that. The case number assigned to the investigation proves it.
The number, USAO 2008-R09578, appeared in the first part of a letter sent on Friday by the Department of Justice to lawyers in Arpaio’s Maricopa County. The letter explained some of what had been investigated and why the case was dropped. The probe looked into allegations that his office misused money and that he and his allies used the powers of their offices to target their political enemies.
But the inclusion of the case number was also a subtle way of showing when it began. And it doesn’t take a cryptographer to decipher what the number means.
The letters at the beginning, USAO, stand for US Attorney’s Office, where the case originated. The sequence of letters and numbers at the end, R09678, are uniquely assigned to distinguish one case from the next.
But the number in the middle, 2008, represents the year the case was opened. President Obama, of course, took office on Jan. 21, 2009. That means the investigation into Arpaio started in the waning days of the Bush administration.
Former U.S. Attorney for Arizona Paul Charlton confirmed to TPM on Saturday that the case number proves when case began. “Yes, 2008 means the case was initiated in the year 2008,” Charlton wrote in an email.
A Republican himself, Charlton served under President Bush but left the office before the Arpaio investigation started. He has also been a critic of the sheriff and has said he believed federal prosecutors had enough evidence to charge Arpaio with a crime.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation into Arpaio and his office continues. The department filed suit against the sheriff in May, alleging he routinely violates the rights of Latinos. Arpaio has also claimed that investigation began with the Obama administration. But Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said at a news conference after launching the lawsuit that the civil rights probe began in June 2008.
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