Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas Perez said the Justice Department will bring a lawsuit against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio if he continues to impede a pending civil rights investigation.
In a letter sent to Arpaio’s counsel Tuesday, Perez gave the top cop, known as “Sheriff Joe,” until Aug. 17 to hand over documents the department requested last year. If Arpaio refuses to comply, Perez said the DOJ “will not hesitate to commence litigation.”
Arpaio has said he believes the investigation is politically motivated and has refused to hand over documents until his office received “appropriate assurances” that the DOJ is not improperly coordinating its investigation with the Department of Homeland Security, according to the letter.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division launched a probe of the self-proclaimed “America’s toughest sheriff” last March to investigate allegations that Arpaio’s office engaged in unlawful searches and seizures, discriminatory police conduct and failed to provide language assistance to individuals with limited English proficiency.
After responding to three of the 51 requests for documentation, the sheriff’s office cut Justice Department officials off. On July 7, 2009, Arpaio held a press conference announcing he would not cooperate with the investigation, provide additional documents or allow the DOJ further access to county facilities or personnel.
The sheriff’s office later submitted a position statement on the operation of Maricopa County jails in June 2010, 15 months after the Justice Department first requested the documents. In the letter Tuesday, Perez said the position statement “falls far short of complying with MCSO’s obligation to cooperate with the investigation.”
Arpaio has a history of public opposition to federal government probes of his activities, and he commonly holds press conferences and crime sweeps to coincide with and highlight his resistance. For example, Arpaio, a vocal opponent of illegal immigration, marched 220 undocumented inmates wearing chains down a public street in Phoenix last fall.
In the letter, Perez said that Maricopa County and the sheriff’s office are contractually obligated to cooperate with the department’s investigation because they accept federal funding.
“MCSO’s refusal to cooperate fully with the Division’s investigation makes it an extreme outlier when compared with other recipients of federal financial assistance, which have uniformly recognized their obligation to cooperate,” Perez wrote.
In a separate investigation, a federal grand jury in Phoenix has been hearing testimony for the past eight months to consider whether to indict Arpaio for allegedly using the power of his office to retaliate against political opponents. That investigation has widened to include former County Attorney Andrew Thomas, Arpaio’s Chief Deputy, Dave Hendershott, and Deputy County Attorney Lisa Aubuchon.