Reporting from Denver — The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday sued a controversial and popular Arizona sheriff, alleging that his department was refusing to cooperate with an investigation into whether it discriminated against Latinos while trying to catch illegal immigrants.
The Justice Department said that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was the first local law enforcement official in 30 years to refuse to provide documents in a federal civil rights inquiry. The federal government could withhold $113 million in funding from Maricopa County if Arpaio can't produce records demonstrating that he avoids racial discrimination.
"The actions of the sheriff's office are unprecedented. It is unfortunate that the department was forced to resort to litigation to gain access to public documents and facilities," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the department's Civil Rights Division.
Arpaio contended that the lawsuit was a political move by the Obama administration, which filed another high-profile lawsuit against Arizona this summer to stop a tough new immigration law from taking effect.
"These actions make it abundantly clear that Arizona, including this sheriff, is Washington's new whipping boy," Arpaio said in a statement. "Washington isn't playing fair and it's time Americans everywhere wake up and see this administration for what it really is — calculating, underhanded at times and certainly not looking out for the best interests of the legal citizens residing in this country."
Arpaio, who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff," has drawn praise and criticism for his aggressive attempts to enforce immigration laws. Most prominent are operations in which his deputies fan out across immigrant neighborhoods, stopping people for sometimes minor violations, such as jaywalking, and asking their immigration status.
Critics contend that the operations amount to racial profiling. Arpaio says his deputies only look for people breaking the law, an assertion he reiterated at a televised news conference Thursday in Phoenix. "I'm very confident that my deputies don't racially profile," he said.
The Obama administration last year revoked Arpaio's authority to enforce federal immigration laws on the streets, a move that had little practical effect because the sheriff said state law allows him to continue his operations. But his battle with the federal government predates the Obama presidency.
In the summer of 2008, under President George W. Bush, the Justice Department launched a preliminary investigation into the allegations of racial profiling. In March 2009, after President Obama had assumed office, the department expanded the inquiry into a full-fledged probe.
The investigation started with what federal officials contended was a routine document request — 51 categories of material. According to the lawsuit filed Thursday, the department received only 11 pages.
The last time the Justice Department had to sue to obtain documents in a civil rights probe was during a 1978 investigation of employment practices of a sheriff's department in Virginia.
For the last 18 months, Arpaio has publicly said he would not give federal investigators access to his jails or other facilities and dismissed the inquiry as politically motivated. His lawyer met with Justice Department lawyers in Washington last week and contended that the material the federal government requested was outside its scope of investigation.
This is not Arpaio's first battle over documents related to possible civil rights abuses. His department faces a lawsuit from an array of civil rights groups for allegedly racially profiling. A federal judge this year found that Arpaio's department improperly destroyed immigration-related paperwork that was evidence in that case, and approved sanctions against the agency.
Arpaio's stance has made him popular in Arizona, the main point of entry for migrants illegally crossing the Mexican border. He was one of the most prominent backers of SB 1070, the aggressive state law mandating that police verify the status of people they stop and suspect are illegal immigrants. The main parts of the law were placed on hold in late July by a federal judge in response to the Obama administration's suit, and the matter is expected to end up in the Supreme Court.
Legal experts said that, despite the combustible backdrop of racial politics, a brash sheriff and local defiance of Washington, Thursday's lawsuit will turn on narrow legal matters such as what the federal government can request under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Arpaio's stance is "more your standard, hardball litigation than it is a challenge to the authority of the federal government," said G. "Jack" Chin, a law professor at the University of Arizona.
Both sides in the contentious immigration debate were quick to seize on Thursday's lawsuit.
"Unless a judge can put some serious sanctions [on him], Arpaio will continue to thumb his nose at the entire justice system," said Lydia Guzman, president of the immigrant rights group Somos America, or We Are America, which is a plaintiff in the racial profiling case against the sheriff's office.
Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, appearing next to the sheriff at his news conference, said the lawsuit shows that federal civil rights investigators have not been able to turn up any evidence of misconduct by Arpaio's department. "It's simply a witch hunt," he said.
As he usually does when challenged, Arpaio promised to forge ahead with his operations. "I'm going to continue, maybe tomorrow, to enforce all the illegal immigration laws," he said. "I'm not going to be intimidated by the Justice Department."