Two political groups are raising money in a bid to counter negative perceptions of a powerful Arizona sheriff, urging people to contribute to help defend the lawman as he faces intense criticism for his immigration crackdowns.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio faces a federal civil rights investigation into his immigration patrols and a federal grand jury probe into allegations he abused his power. County officials are paying for lawyers to defend Arpaio in the civil rights investigation, but said they won’t shell out any money to defend him if he’s charged with a crime.
The two groups said they aren’t trying to raise money for a legal defense for the sheriff. Instead, the sheriff’s regular campaign committee and an advocacy group that bears Arpaio’s name said they were mounting a public relations response to Arpaio’s critics.
The group Defend Sheriff Joe ran a TV commercial on Election Day that said illegal immigrants were invading the United States that the Obama administration has sued the sheriff known for immigration enforcement. Viewers saw an image of a fence along the southern border and a picture of a smiling Arpaio superimposed on a fluttering American flag.
“Many times, we are tried in the court of public opinion. That is totally different from the legal system,” said Vernon Parker, chairman of Defend Sheriff Joe, which ran the commercial on election night and bills itself as advocacy group aimed at protecting Arpaio’s reputation and opposing politicians who support amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The group, organized in September as a 527 organization after the tax code provision that gives it tax-exempt status, can raise money from individuals in unlimited amounts and has an estimated $60,000 to $70,000 cash on hand.
Parker, an Arpaio friend who received the sheriff’s endorsement in his unsuccessful congressional bid this year, said the sheriff faces federa investigations because he is cracking down on a problem that the federal government has failed to confront adequately.
But Michael Manning, an attorney who won $20 million in damages in five deaths at Arpaio’s jails, said even if the groups aren’t raising money for legal fees, he believes the commercial was meant to influence prospective jurors who might be called at a criminal trial of the sheriff.
“Many people will go into that jury pool believing that this is all just the use of the legal system to attack Arpaio, that there is not much merit to their claims,” said Manning, who represented a prominent Arpaio critic in a recent election dispute.
Parker said Manning’s claim was ridiculous, noting that judges ask prospective jurors if there’s anything they know about a case that might influence them and have the power to dismiss them for such reasons.
Arpaio, who like Parker said there has been no coordination between him and Parker’s independent group, also rejected the claim. “What jury pools?” Arpaio asked. “You don’t have a jury pool until you have arrests, so what jury pool?”
Manny Tarango, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is running the grand jury investigation, declined to comment on Manning’s claim.
Federal prosecutors have been investigating Arpaio since at least January. The investigation is secret, but a top county official has said that he told the grand jurors that Arpaio used his law enforcement powers to try to intimidate county employees in a dispute between the sheriff’s office and county officials. No charges have been filed.
The re-election committee, which has been raising money since April 2009 and now has nearly $3 million in cash, recently posted an online fundraising plea saying that Arpaio desperately needs help to defend himself from advocates who turn a blind eye to illegal immigration and news organizations that distort his record. “I don’t have the personal resources to defend myself from these vicious attacks,” the sheriff said in the solicitation.
Chad Willems, who runs the re-election committee, said the solicitation is perfectly legal and noted that the sheriff is running for a sixth term in 2012.
Willems also said Arpaio supporters are weighing whether to set up a separate legal defense fund for Arpaio. “Frankly, we haven’t made up our minds on what we will do or if it’s necessary,” Willems said.