Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio may be keeping a shadow set of books that has allowed him to pay deputies’ salaries with money voters intended to be used for jail operations, county officials said Monday.
County auditors told the Board of Supervisors during a meeting on Monday that the amount improperly paid out of a dedicated “jail enhancement fund” could amount to $50 million over the past four years in the worst case.
Board chairman Don Stapley said the sheriff had stonewalled county financial officials as they tried to get to the bottom of discrepancies in how the special jail fund was being spent.
The board had intended to hold a hearing in which they might find Arpaio in contempt for refusing to hand over financial documents requested by the county. But Arpaio last week brought a court action to try to stop the contempt hearing, and a Pima County Superior Court judge granted a temporary halt to that hearing hours before Monday afternoon’s meeting.
Last year, the sheriff’s office received $109 million from the jail tax, which was first approved by voters in 1998. Any misspent money will have to be repaid.
Although the contempt hearing was called off, supervisors heard presentations on efforts to get Arpaio to turn over records showing how the jail tax was spent, concerns about the possible misuse of county credit cards and money in special bank accounts.
“There are six accounts that we are aware of and two of them are essentially shadow accounts for funds that are budgeted by the Board of Supervisors. Those are the jail enhancement fund and the RICO funds,” deputy county manager Sandi Wilson said. “Until we get the issues resolved with these outside accounts we’re not recommending an appropriation for these funds for fiscal year 2011.”
Arpaio issued a statement calling the fund freezes retaliation for the judge not allowing the board to hold the contempt hearing.
Arpaio and county officials have been embroiled in a political feud for more than a year. The sheriff and his chief ally, former County Attorney Andrew Thomas, have said they were trying to root out corruption by making criminal cases against two county supervisors, while county officials say the investigations were baseless and that Thomas and sheriff were abusing their power.
Criminal charges against Supervisors Mary Rose Wilcox and Stapley were dismissed after a judge ruled that Thomas had a conflict of interest in pressing a case against Wilcox. The investigations of both officials have since been turned over to a prosecutor from another county.
“Today’s board meeting was more like a public relations event for Chairman Don Stapley and Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, who by the way are under investigation by my office, used subtle innuendoes to imply that my office has misappropriated taxpayer dollars,” Arpaio said in a statement. “The fact that the board would play politics with the safety of officers and the public is unconscionable.”
Stapley said Monday that the financial issues raised by the board have nothing to do with those earlier battles.
“This is an issue of fiscal responsibility and about money, and about the process of creating a budget which this board has the statutory responsibility to create for all departments in Maricopa County, including the sheriff’s department,” he said.