Actions of former Sheriff still costing Maricopa County taxpayers millions in legal fees

The lawsuit is connected to allegations of racial profiling from former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Published: Feb. 23, 2023 at 6:00 AM MST|Updated: Feb. 23, 2023 at 9:56 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - More than $200 million in taxpayer money has been spent on a class action lawsuit involving the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, and there’s no end in sight. It’s connected to allegations of racial profiling from former Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Current Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone promised transparency and accountability when he came into office, which the Sheriff says he’s delivered. Still, he’s been held in contempt for not coming into compliance with the lawsuit and the price tag continues to rise.

Arpaio directed his deputies to target and arrest undocumented drivers and passengers beginning in 2006. “The last I heard it’s illegal to be in this country illegally. They are criminals, let’s get that straight,” Arpaio said in response to questions about the sweep.

Those so-called “round-ups” also caught U.S. citizens and those here with legal work visas. “The Hispanic community was living in fear, and didn’t want to talk about it. So we had to find those people,” Rich Robertson, a longtime private investigator, said. Robertson said he worked with the ACLU back then to identify those who deputies stopped illegally. “We would go and interview the people that were taken into custody for various traffic offenses or got arrested at their place of employment; and we would try to get their stories,” Robertson said.

That work led to a federal class action lawsuit called Melendres v. Arpaio. A judge ordered Arpaio to stop his practices, but he didn’t. In 2013, a judge found Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office guilty of criminal contempt. A court monitor was put in place to track the office’s progress in rooting out racial profiling.

Penzone inherited that work after beating Arpaio in the 2016 election. “I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done but I also have to own our failures,” Sheriff Penzone said.

Under his leadership, MCSO has come into compliance with most of the lawsuit requirements but not their internal misconduct investigations. According to the latest monitor’s report, in 2019, MCSO had a backlog of more than 1,600 cases. In 2021, it was 2,100. “At the heart of this case and this complaint is really that the backlog creates mistrust with the community. There’s no accountability,” Vanessa Pineda, an attorney with the ACLU, said.

The ACLU is a plaintiff in the Melendres case. She’s fighting for MCSO to come into full compliance. “He keeps seeing it as a problem that was created by Sheriff Joe Arpaio but it continues to be his responsibility,” Pineda said. “The problem is the complexity of what’s expected of this office, unlike any other agency in the nation that we investigate every case whether it’s anonymous, whether there is a complainant, whether the person you’re accusing is a current employee, a former employee or a deceased employee,” Sheriff Penzone said.

These types of investigations are supposed to take 85 days. But the monitor’s report found in January 2022, it took 650 days. As of July 2022, that dropped to 562 days. Arizona’s Family Investigates asked if priority is given to the more serious cases. “My responsibility is to make sure if any employee in the organization is accused of a serious offense and it involves public trust or a threat to the community they’re going to be taken out of that position and put on administrative leave,” Sheriff Penzone said.

In November, Sheriff Penzone was held in contempt. The judge said MSCO wasn’t doing enough to reduce the backlog. He faced $1.1 million in additional fines if MCSO didn’t hire seven more investigators. Penzone said that’s been done and now there is 39 total.

Arizona’s Family Investigates asked the sheriff about the cost of the lawsuit and if the money could have been better spent. He agreed with that sentiment. Under the court order, the Sheriff’s Office has contracted a consulting firm to study how best to reduce the backlog and determine the proper staffing levels. “Do I need more bodies? Heck yeah. How they’re deployed in the organization though I would like to have the final say because I’m the guy who has the final accountability,” Penzone said.

Sheriff Penzone said he plans to appeal the contempt ruling. He has until mid-April to explain his case. Penzone said he’s committed to full compliance but couldn’t say how many more months or years it will take. As for Arpaio, former President Donald Trump pardoned him in 2017.