PHOENIX – He takes pride in being called America's toughest sheriff.
But the irreverent sheriff may now face financial consequences for his headline-making demeanor.
The sheriff of metropolitan Phoenix built his reputation around defying those who said it wasn't his job to enforce immigration laws. But Sheriff Joe Arpaio's stubborn streak is catching up with him — and taxpayers will foot the bill.
The six-term sheriff learns in court hearings set to begin Thursday whether he'll face civil fines for disobeying a judge's orders in a racial profiling case and whether he'll later be called into criminal court on the same grounds.
Maricopa County will have spent $125 million by next summer defending Arpaio against lawsuits during his 22 years as sheriff. That includes $50 million in the profiling case alone and $74 million in judgments, settlements and legal fees for the sheriff's office, covering things like lawsuits over deaths in his jails and the lawman's failed investigations of political enemies. This week's resumption of hearings, which began in April, could add to those bills.
"At what level do we have to spend on the sheriff's actions before there is a huge outcry by the public?" said Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo, a longtime Arpaio critic who serves on the board that approves spending of tax dollars in the profiling case.
The taxpayer costs haven't diminished Arpaio's popularity enough to drive him out of office. His political strength has dipped over the years, but his devoted base of supporters and impressive fundraising helped him pull out wins. He spent $8 million in his 2012 re-election campaign and has $2 million on hand in his race next year for a seventh term.
The contempt hearings this week will center on Arpaio's acknowledged disobedience of court orders by withholding traffic-stop recordings requested before a 2012 profiling trial.
Other subjects to be examined at the hearings include allegations that Arpaio's officers pocketed identification and other personal items seized from people during traffic stops, investigated the judge in the profiling case in a failed bid to get him disqualified from the lawsuit, and conducted immigration patrols for 18 months after they were ordered to stop them.
There is no set range for the fines that Arpaio could face as a result of the hearings. The decision is up to U.S. District Judge Murray Snow, who could also expose Arpaio to possible jail time and even more fines if he recommends that prosecutors press a criminal contempt case against him.
Experts, however, say it's unlikely the judge would jail an 83-year-old elected official in the nation's sixth-largest city.
The judge has signaled he wants Arpaio's contempt penalties to include pulling money out of his own pocket to pay a fine. County officials say they don't believe Arpaio has ever had to personally pay any legal costs to defend himself in lawsuits related to his work as sheriff.
Arpaio earns $100,000 annually as sheriff and owns commercial real estate worth more than $2 million.
The sheriff and his lawyer, John Masterson, have declined to comment on the upcoming hearings or the rising taxpayer costs from the case.
Another possible financial liability looms over the hearings that could cost taxpayers even more money.
The judge is expected to decide whether Maricopa County will have to compensate Latino drivers and workers detained by Arpaio's office during the 18 months when his office violated the prohibition on its immigration patrols.
Lawyers who brought the case against the sheriff said they're trying to locate the hundreds of Latinos believed harmed by the illegal detentions.
The taxpayer bill is expected to continue to rise until the sheriff's office has been found to be in full compliance with the court-ordered changes for three straight years. Arpaio's office hasn't yet been deemed to be in full compliance.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.
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