Criminal Contempt Probe Of Sheriff Joe Arpaio Passed To Justice Department

By Jude Joffe-Block
Published: Saturday, August 27, 2016 - 12:14am

One week after a federal judge asked the office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona to bring criminal contempt of court charges against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and three others, that office has been recused from the case.

That means the decision whether to prosecute the six-term sheriff will no longer be in the hands of Arizona federal prosecutors. Instead it will be up to lawyers with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C.

On Aug. 19, U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow asked U.S. Attorney John Leonardo to prosecute Arpaio and three associates for repeatedly violating orders in a long-standing racial profiling case. The judge has already found Arpaio and Chief Deputy Sheridan Jerry Sheridan in civil contempt of court.

A memo filed Friday said Associate Deputy Attorney General Andrew Goldsmith had approved the U.S. Attorney’s request to recuse the entire District of Arizona office from the case, “based upon existing conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest pertaining to the matter.”

The memo does not specify the conflicts. Four years ago Leonardo also recused himself from a Justice Department abuse of power criminal investigation against Arpaio.

Before Leonardo became U.S. Attorney, he was a Superior Court Judge in Pima County and ruled that former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, working with Arpaio, had improperly brought criminal charges against former Maricopa County supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox. In Leonardo’s ruling he wrote that Arpaio had “misused the power of his office” to target county supervisors for criminal investigation.

In response to Friday’s news, Arpaio’s criminal defense attorney Mel McDonald said in an emailed statement that he had looked forward to consulting with lawyers from the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s office in the hopes of dissuading them from acting on the judge’s criminal referral.

“I respect their decision to recuse themselves and will hopefully be meeting with representatives of the Department of Justice in the coming weeks in an attempt to persuade them that this referral lacks merit and should not be pursued,” McDonald wrote.

Snow has been overseeing reforms at the sheriff’s office since he determined in 2013 that Arpaio’s immigration enforcement tactics violated the civil rights of Latino motorists. In May he determined Arpaio, Sheridan had repeatedly and intentionally violated court orders and held them in civil contempt of court.

The judge concluded Arpaio should face criminal contempt of court charges for ignoring a 2011 court order to stop making immigration arrests, and withholding evidence from the court.

Criminal contempt of court is used very rarely. It can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or a felony and the punishment can be prison time.

If a criminal case goes forward, it will be overseen by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton.

There is no set timeline for DOJ Public Integrity Section prosecutors to decide whether they will bring charges. If they decline, it will be up to Bolton whether to appoint a special prosecutor.