Rank-and-file county staff reveal fear of Sheriff Joe Arpaio
by Yvonne Wingett - Jan. 29, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
As conflicts between Maricopa County's Board of Supervisors and the sheriff and county attorney escalated in 2009, rank-and-file county employees were plunged into a yearlong emotional roller coaster.
This month's announcement of a federal grand jury entering the fray brought county workers some relief and hope for an end to the extraordinary tensions. The grand jury is looking into allegations of abuse of power by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his chief deputy, David Hendershott, in their dealings with judges and county officials.
Now, as they wait to see what will happen, a cross-section of county employees spoke with The Arizona Republic, talking publicly for the first time about life inside the county offices during the political battles, lawsuits and arrests going on above them at the highest levels of county government. Most have little connection to the conflicts. Still, their runaway fears were such that they worried that Arpaio's deputies would come after them as well.
Fears first spiked in December 2008, when county administrators spent $10,000 to sweep county offices for illegal wiretaps they worried had been installed by Arpaio. None was found. But rank-and-file workers still became terrified of possible surveillance, lawsuits or even arrest. Arpaio's frequent retort to critics that the innocent had nothing to worry about did not allay their concerns.
Unsure what or whom to believe, many county workers quit talking about sensitive matters on the telephone or in e-mails, even when using their personal home computers.
Conversation in hallways and elevators stopped.
Some feared they would be arrested while pulling into the same parking garage where deputies took Supervisor Don Stapley into custody.
Others worried that even minor infractions - a chipped windshield, having a beer before driving home after work - would be an excuse for deputies to pull them over or arrest them. [This is how it works in reality. If the cops think you are a criminal they will shake you down for trivial crimes. This is garbage Sheriff Joe uses to arrest people with brown skin who might not be citizens]
One Superior Court judge moved meetings with her staff and other judges to the chamber restroom, believing it would be a less likely spot for a listening device.
Working for a county often at war with itself put employees on edge and stressed relationships with co-workers and spouses.
Anxiety at work
Worries took hold at work immediately after the wiretap sweeps and grew through 2009 with each exchange among the sheriff, board and county attorney.
As a compensation supervisor, Darrien Ellison spends a lot of time researching money requests from the Sheriff's Office.
In the course of his normal work over the past year, he denied two pay-raise requests for a high-ranking Sheriff's Office employee. Later, the thought crossed his mind several times that authorities might come after him. When he had to call sheriff's staff, he assumed he was being recorded. [Assumed? When you call the police you almost always ARE being recorded] "Who knows what they would use from a conversation on one of their employees against me," he said.
Dexter Thomas is a senior management and budget analyst who works with the judicial branch's budgets.
He loved his job, but then, the easygoing atmosphere at work changed. After wiretap sweeps around him on the 10th floor, Thomas wondered who might be spying on him.
He instructed his wife and daughter to never call him on his work phone. He stopped using e-mail for personal matters. When colleagues copied him on chain e-mails, he asked to be removed from the distribution list in case authorities were reading his e-mails.
"You never know who's watching," Thomas said. "You look over your shoulder before you push the button to the 10th floor. And I don't talk to anyone anymore."
Supervisor Max Wilson was once an Arpaio supporter, even volunteering for years as a member of Arpaio's volunteer-posse program.
But as the infighting intensified, so did Wilson's stress levels. He braced for his own arrest. His wife, like many county worker spouses, tensed up whenever sheriff's cars cruised through the neighborhood.
In March 2009, Arpaio warned in a speech that Wilson "better be careful on cutting my budget." Wilson took that as a threat and pulled in his chief of staff to talk about whether he should resign.
Wilson stopped volunteering with the posse. Later, his son-in-law also turned in his posse-member badge.
Fears at home
Fear followed employees home. Many talked with their wives, husbands and children to warn them deputies might show up or follow them around town.
Marla Schofield is a compensation analyst who studies salary data and personnel information. At first, she doubted sheriff's deputies would ever have a reason to contact her.
Then, the battles heated up over the county's decision to build a new court complex.
Deputies showed up at her home twice one summer weekend to ask questions. She didn't answer the door. A deputy left his business card on her car windshield, just below a crack in the glass.
Later, she went out for groceries and gas. She scanned the road and parking lots for sheriff's deputies. She worried the card was strategically placed to send her a message about the cracked windshield, "a tactic to pull me over."
She quickly had the crack repaired.
Compensation supervisor Darrien Ellison and his family were away visiting in-laws last summer on the day deputies came to his house to question him.
When he didn't come to the door, deputies talked to his neighbor. They asked about Ellison and his job at the county. Later, Ellison felt like some kind of suspicion had been cast on his family.
"Your neighbors obviously probably think something has been done wrong," he said, asking how does anyone explain that it's "just politics."
Lee Ann Bohn is a deputy budget director. She led last year's budget negotiations with the Sheriff's Office. Later, while she was out of town with her two daughters, sheriff's deputies questioned employees from her department. Her personal cellphone voicemail filled up with messages from workers asking for help. One employee was so rattled she could barely speak.
From then on, Bohn was extra careful about driving under the speed limit. She also took good care of her swimming pool so it didn't turn green and provide anyone an excuse to enter her property
Stress takes a toll
As the conflicts continued through 2009, the months of fear at work and home took its toll on county employees.
Scott Isham is chief of staff to Wilson. He tried not to let fear of arrest take hold of his family or staff. But, as time went on, he also tried to be realistic.
Isham called a criminal defense attorney for advice. He asked how much it would cost to get him out of jail. He put the attorney's phone numbers in his cellphone and business cards in his car. Regular after-work beers with his buddies ended. Isham told his wife to be careful. No U-turns. Never leave the kids in the car when returning videos. Who knows what they might call child endangerment?
Kenny Harris oversees construction of the county's court tower. It's the most expensive project in county history, a major point of contention between the warring factions of the county and the target of one of Arpaio's investigations.
In December, Harris got a panicked call from his 70-year-old mother-in-law. Deputies had been at the door of their home. His two young daughters asked if he was in trouble.
As a budget supervisor, Ryan Wimmer works on financial matters involving the sheriff and county attorney.
Wimmer felt like a likely target. Early on, he didn't expect to be arrested or subpoenaed. But, after Stapley's arrest, Wimmer had more restless nights. Then, deputies came to his apartment with questions about the court-tower project.
Wimmer lay awake after that wondering: How would he find an attorney? How would he pay for an attorney?
Sometimes, Wimmer worked at home. He wondered if they could seize his home computer.
Wimmer stopped expressing any personal opinions about county officials and operations. He struggled to explain to his girlfriend and family what was happening at work.
"Everything I do," he said, "I just assume it will be used against me."
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County officials, sheriff conflicts
Dec. 2, 2008: County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio announce Supervisor Don Stapley is indicted on 118 counts related to irregularities on his financial-disclosure forms.
Late December 2008: County officials pay $10,000 to sweep offices for illegal listening devices possibly placed by Arpaio. None is found.
Late January 2009: Arpaio files a public-records request asking for calendars, e-mails and copies of all work and cellphone logs of 36 county employees.
February : County officials pay $4,600 to sweep offices for illegal listening devices. Again, none are found.
March : Arpaio and Thomas for the first time acknowledge they are investigating the Board of Supervisors and top county administrators over the $340 million court-tower project.
May: Republic sources confirm the FBI interviewed public officials - including county employees - about whether Arpaio has abused his authority.
June 16: Arpaio tells The Republic that County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox is under investigation.
June through December: Deputies question county employees at their homes.
Sept. 21: Sheriff's deputies arrest Stapley on fraud charges. No charges are filed.
Nov. 12: Sheriff's officials ask for more county workers' records.
Dec. 1: Arpaio and Thomas file a civil suit in U.S. District Court against county administrators, elected officials, judges and attorneys. The suit alleges a widespread conspiracy that officials are hindering criminal investigations.
Dec. 8: Stapley and Wilcox are indicted on an array of charges. They later plead not guilty.
Dec. 9: Thomas files criminal charges against Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe, accusing him of hindering prosecution, obstructing a criminal investigation and bribery.
Jan. 7: County Manager David Smith and Deputy County Manager Sandi Wilson confirm they will testify before a federal grand jury that is examining allegations of abuse of power by Arpaio and Chief Deputy David Hendershott.