In Boldest Move Yet, Arpaio And Ally Charge Judge With Bribery, Despite Lack Of Evidence

December 11, 2009 8:27 a.m.

For a while now, there’s been plenty of evidence of Sheriff Joe Arpaio abusing his law enforcement powers to target political enemies. Indeed, Justice Department investigators are said to have been looking into the issue for the last year.

But Arpaio may now have taken things into a whole new realm. This week, the top cop for Maricopa County, Arizona, who has used media-friendly stunts to gain a national reputation as a law-and-order zealot and bete noir of illegal immigrants, announced the filing of a criminal complaint against his latest target: a judge who’s involved in several of the controversial cases Sheriff Joe has helped bring.Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe’s “crime”? It looks like it might not amount to much more than having made some rulings that America’s Toughest Sheriff didn’t take kindly to.

Here’s what’s going on. It gets convoluted, but bear with us — it’s worth it.

On Wednesday, Arpaio and his close ally, County Prosecutor Andrew Thomas, went before the cameras to announce that Donahoe was being charged “for hindering prosecution, obstruction of justice, and bribery.”

Even after examining the grab-bag complaint and an accompanying press release (pdf), it’s difficult to tell just what Donahoe is being accused of.

The main charge seems to be that he conspired with lawyers for a group of county officials to obstruct an investigation that Arpaio and Thomas are conducting into the county’s $347 million plan to build a new court tower. Arpaio has long opposed the tower plan, some say because it could take county resources away from his own office. Donahoe ruled earlier this year that Thomas could not legally investigate the court tower matter, because his office had given legal advice on the issue. Donahoe found that Thomas’s actions in seeking to probe the court tower despite the conflict had “the appearance of evil.”

But Thomas admitted at the press conference that no evidence exists that Donahoe, a highly-respected veteran of the bench, had accepted a bribe of any kind, according to the Phoenix New Times — a newspaper that itself has been a target of Arpaio’s vindictive brand of law enforcement. Pressed by reporters, Thomas said that Arizona has a “very broad” definition of bribery. Later he added: “If I’m not explaining this well, I hope you’ll help me.”

Also at issue is a hearing that Donahoe had scheduled for Wednesday. The judge was set to hear an argument from the county’s lawyers that Arpaio and Thomas should not be able to import a prominent Washington Republican lawyer power-couple, Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, to build cases against the county officials, likely in connection to the court tower issue. The hearing also could have led to a ruling that Thomas lacked the authority to prosecute the county officials at all.

Arpaio and Thomas certainly didn’t welcome the heaing. At the press conference, Thomas called it “illegal,” arguing that it could have exposed confidential grand-jury testimony to criminal defendants and suspects. And he and Arpaio charged that Donahoe should have recused himself from it, because last week, Thomas’s office had filed a “racketeering” lawsuit that accused the county officials, their lawyers, Donahoe, and other judges of being part of a criminal enterprise. “Nobody is above the law,” said Thomas.

In other words, their argument went: Donahoe should recuse himself because we’ve already claimed he’s corrupt. A better example of the abuse of prosecutorial power would be hard to find. In the end, the Arpaio-Thomas press conference succeeded in getting the hearing canceled.

Donahoe appears to have incurred Arpaio’s wrath in other ways of late:

In a separate case last month, the judge ordered a detention officer for the sheriff’s office to hold a press conference apologizing for swiping notes from a defense attorney. Arpaio seemed to see the order as an intolerable encroachment on his authority. “My officer was doing his job, and I will not stand by and allow him to be thrown to the wolves by the courts because they feel pressure from the media on this situation,” he declared in a press release. “I decide who holds press conferences and when they are held regarding this Sheriff’s Office.” Wedesday’s complaint argued that Donahoe’s order has helped create “a serious cloud over the ethics and tactics employed in the Maricopa County Courts.”

Donahoe had also rejected a bid by Thomas to hold one county official, indicted supervisor Don Stapley, in contempt of court for alleged wrongdoing.

It’s unclear what Arpaio and Thomas’s end game is. But they’ve been credibly accused before of bringing charges against, or announcing investigations of, political opponents simply to discredit their targets in the eyes of the public. By sending a message that they’re willing to do that even to judges, they may hope to intimidate Donahoe and his colleagues into treating them more favorably.

It’s worth remembering that there are real lives at stake. Donahoe will now likely have to appear in court January 11, enter a plea, and submit to booking — all despite the fact that there’s essentially no evidence he did anything wrong.

The Justice Department could step in and end Arpaio and Thomas’s reign of terror, which threatens the integrity of the entire judicial and law enforcement systems for the nations’ fourth-most populous county. But DOJ appears to be working at a leisurely pace: it’s probe has been underway for over a year, and there’s no sign that it’s having any effect in checking Arpaio’s actions.

Members of Maricopa’s legal community think Sheriff Joe may finally have overplayed his hand in going after Donahoe, we hear. But whether the voters to whom Arpaio ultimately answers will see it the same way is anyone’s guess.

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