The Associated Press
PHOENIX — An audio recording has surfaced of an Arizona sheriff playing his refusal to cooperate in a racial profiling investigation for laughs at a fundraiser for an anti-illegal immigration group in Texas. He ridicules politicians who sought the probe and displayed contempt toward federal authorities who were — and are still — investigating him on two fronts.
The dismissive comments in 2009 by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio came as the U.S. Justice Department had already launched a civil rights probe of his trademark immigration patrols and the FBI already was examining abuse-of-power allegations for the sheriff's investigations of political foes.
In the September 2009 speech in Houston, Arpaio boasted that he arrested hundreds of illegal immigrants after politicians and federal investigators started to pick apart his patrols. He said he wouldn't cooperate with the inquiry, but said he would tone down the patrols — if he was proven wrong.
"But I'm not. After they went after me, we arrested 500 more just for spite," the self-proclaimed "America's toughest sheriff" said, pausing for laughter and applause.
In an interview Thursday, Arpaio defended his comments before Texans For Immigration Reform as a collection of humorous off-the-cuff remarks intended merely to show that he wasn't going to back down to critics.
"These are not official, under-oath speeches," Arpaio said. "It's strictly a speech that when I'm talking to certain groups, they like to hear what I have to say, because they know I'm under the gun."
The sheriff currently awaits a lawsuit that the U.S. Justice Department has promised to file over its civil rights allegations. Arpaio's office is accused of racially profiling Latinos and retaliating against critics of its immigration patrols.
Talks to settle the case before going to court fell apart earlier this month when Arpaio balked at a proposal to let a court-appointed official monitor his operations to make sure his office isn't making unconstitutional arrests.
The current status of the criminal investigation against Arpaio's office is unknown. At the time of the speech, the FBI was already several months into its investigation of the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad that criminally investigated county officials and judges who were at odds with Arpaio in legal and political disputes. A grand jury has been investigating those allegations since at least December 2009.
Two county officials and a judge were charged in cases that collapsed in court just a few months after they were filed. An Arpaio ally who prosecuted the cases was disbarred in a ruling earlier this month by an ethics panel of the Arizona courts.
That decision said the cases were brought to embarrass the trio of county officials and that evidence suggested the sheriff conspired with the prosecutor to intimidate the judge with unfounded criminal charges. But the panel said it didn't have jurisdiction for potential criminal cases.
The FBI declined to provide an update on its investigation. Federal prosecutors didn't respond to a request for an update.
The recording of the Texas speech was given to The Associated Press recently by Joel Robbins, a Phoenix attorney and longtime Arpaio critic who said he bought a copy from the group after reading about it in a newspaper.
At the time of the speech, only Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley had been criminally charged, though the sheriff was investigating other county officials.
"We have already indicted one, so I am not their favorite guy," Arpaio said in Houston, drawing laughter. "The county has cut my budget $35 million just for spite. But I'm still locking them all up. I have ways to get the job done."
Paul Charlton, an attorney who represented Stapley and has listened to portions of Arpaio's speech, described the comment as "close to a confession as you may ever get."
"He is drawing the nexus himself between the budget cut of $35 million dollars and an investigation of the Board of Supervisors. A threat to lock them up, which in fact he did," Charlton said.
Arpaio maintains that he never investigated county officials because they cut his budget.
Elsewhere in the speech, Arpaio — a former federal drug agent — makes the Justice Department the butt of his jokes, saying, "It usually takes them two years to open a letter up and then another two years to buy the airline ticket."
The sheriff also boasted of kicking federal civil rights investigators out of his office. And he acknowledged that most controversies were only to his benefit, pointing out that his re-election campaign raised $50,000 when the Rev. Al Sharpton came to Arizona to criticize his immigration patrols.
The crowd cheered and whistled when Arpaio raised the possibility of subpoenaing President Barack Obama to testify in a civil rights lawsuit that might be filed by the federal government. They lined up to have Arpaio sign a copy of his latest book.
Meanwhile, a modest but noisy protest brewed outside the hotel. Several dozen anti-Arpaio protesters carried signs saying "No To Racism," while his supporters carried signs such as "Sheriff Joe Arpaio, USA Hero."
Democratic state Rep. Steve Gallardo, a longtime Arpaio critic who listened to portions of the speech, said the sheriff's comments prove that he uses illegal immigrants to elevate his national political profile.
"This is not about enforcing our laws," Gallardo said. "This is about going after human beings. This is about targeting elected officials. This is about, exactly, using immigrants as props or pawns in his own world."
For his part, Arpaio said his only regret in making the speech was that he used the wrong figure for the number of illegal immigrants arrested after the civil rights inquiry began.
"It was wrong," Arpaio said. "It wasn't 500. It was thousands."