There are times when Sheriff Joe Arpaio has seemed untouchable. In his nearly 20 years in office, he has survived political challenges, court judgments and criminal investigations.
But a ruling filed last week by an arm of the Arizona Supreme Court could prove to be a road map to the Republican lawman’s undoing.A three-person disciplinary panel of the state’s high court said there was enough evidence to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the sheriff and three of his closest allies participated in what the panel believes was federal crime in December 2009.
The alleged crime doesn’t stem from battles over immigration, pink underwear or any of the other things that have made Arpaio famous. Instead, it deals with a feud among local government officials in which the panel said the sheriff and his allies took things way too far.
The ruling was the result of almost two years of investigation by the State Bar of Arizona as well as two months of sworn testimony, including from Arpaio himself, in front of the Supreme Court’s disciplinary panel last year.
The panel looked at whether the two prosecutors, former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and his aide Lisa Aubuchon, violated ethics rules as part of the feud with local government officials in the county. During the melee, Thomas and Arpaio launched criminal investigations into at least 14 people they were doing battle with, largely over budget issues.
Investigators with the US Justice Department appear to be focusing on the same feud as part of their ongoing criminal investigation into Arpaio’s office. The Arizona Republic reported on Sunday that FBI agents teamed up with state ethics investigators during the probe.
Through a spokesman, Arpaio declined on Tuesday to talk about the feud because some of it was also the subject of lawsuits.
Last week, the Supreme Court’s disciplinary panel decided unanimously that Thomas and Aubuchon had violated enough ethics rules that they should lose their law licenses. But the panelists also made it clear in their 247-page ruling that they believed the sheriff was very much at the center of the wrongdoing. Arpaio’s name appeared 48 times in the document.
Part of the ruling focused on a Dec. 8, 2009 meeting that involved the two prosecutors, the sheriff and his No. 2 man, Chief Deputy David Hendershott.
They were meeting to discuss what to do about Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe, who was scheduled to hold a hearing the next day about whether the prosecutors should be allowed to continue investigating their fellow county officials. The foursome were afraid, according to the ruling, that Donahoe would rule against them.
During testimony before the panel, Arpaio’s longtime chief deputy said the sheriff was the one who first came up with the idea of charging the judge with a crime to force him off the case. The others agreed, Hendershott said. The next day, the prosecutors filed a criminal charges against the judge, accusing him of bribery, obstruction of justice and hindering a prosecution.
The prosecutors brought the charges “without a shred of evidence that Donahoe had committed any crime,” the ruling said. Starting on page 216, it revealed even more:
The evidence clearly and convincingly suggests that Mr. Thomas and Ms. Aubuchon, together with Chief Deputy Hendershott and Sheriff Arpaio, met on December 9, 2008, (sic) with the intention of stopping Judge Donahoe from issuing a ruling at a hearing scheduled the next day by filing criminal charges against him. That evidence is detailed in full throughout this opinion. Perhaps most telling, however, is the testimony of Sergeant Brandon Luth, who recounted Hendershott’s and Aubuchon’s reactions upon learning that the hearing had been vacated after the direct complaint against Judge Donahoe had been filed. Sgt. Luth testified that Aubuchon “looked pleased” when she mentioned to Sgt. Luth that the hearing had been cancelled. In addition, Sgt. Luth testified that when he handed the direct complaint to Mr. Hendershott and informed him that the hearing had been vacated, Mr. Hendershott uttered the word “checkmate.” This, together with all the evidence, clearly and convincingly suggests that Mr. Thomas and Ms. Aubuchon conspired to muzzle Judge Donahoe.
Were this a criminal case, we are confident that the evidence would establish this conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt.
That plot, according to the panel, was a violation of federal law, specifically one that “makes it a crime to conspire to injure, oppress, threaten or intimidate any person in the free exercise or enjoyment of a right or privilege secured to him by the US Constitution.”
The judge clearly fell into that category, the panel’s ruling said.
The charges against Donahoe were later thrown out by another judge. Similarly, Arpaio’s investigations of the other 13 county officials he targeted also fell apart, often due to a lack of evidence or rulings that the alleged crimes had taken place so long ago that they were past the point when they could be charged.
The targets of the investigations included all five members of the county Board of Supervisors, three other judges, the county’s top two appointed officials, a high-ranking attorney for the county and two private lawyers.
Thomas charged two of the supervisors with crimes during the feud. Those charges were eventually tossed as well.
Thomas and Aubuchon have denied wrongdoing in the case. Thomas said last week he continues to be the victim of a witch hunt designed to allow corruption to continue in Maricopa County. Aubuchon appealed her disbarment this week and Thomas is expected to do the same soon.