PHOENIX — Politicians have made numerous claims about former Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s legal troubles and his immigration enforcement legacy since he was granted a White House pardon last week.
Arpaio and others have said he was the victim of a politically motivated prosecution brought by the Obama administration. President Donald Trump said Arpaio deserves a pass in part because of his work in fighting illegal immigration.
The claim that his problems were the result of political retribution by President Barack Obama is undercut by several facts in the racial profiling case that led to the criminal case against him.
Here are some of the claims and facts:
THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION TO BLAME?
Arpaio and his backers largely blame the Obama administration for his troubles. Trump even said the timing of the contempt case being brought two weeks before the election cost Arpaio his job.
“Thank you @realdonaldtrump for seeing my conviction for what it is: a political witch hunt by holdovers in the Obama justice department!” Arpaio said in a tweet shortly after the president issued the pardon.
The truth is the civil rights cases that were the source of Arpaio’s legal problems began during the administration of President George W. Bush, and the judge who recommended the contempt-of-court charge against the Republican sheriff is a conservative who was appointed by Bush.
The judge who found Arpaio guilty of a crime was nominated to the bench by President Bill Clinton.
On the timing of the case so close to the election, critics point out that the sheriff’s criminal charge would have probably been brought sooner had Arpaio not dragged his feet on several court fights and unsuccessfully sought to disqualify the judge from presiding over the lawsuit. Those fights had to be resolved before the case could move forward, which happened shortly before the election.
WAS THE PROSECUTION POLITICAL?
The answer isn’t simple.
Arpaio was convicted of misdemeanor contempt-of-court for intentionally disobeying a 2011 court order to stop his traffic patrols that targeted immigrants.
The sheriff had acknowledged disobeying the order from U.S. District Judge Murray Snow, who concluded the sheriff prolonged the patrols because he thought it would help his re-election prospects during his tough 2012 campaign. Arpaio insisted his disobedience wasn’t intentional and blamed one of his former attorneys for the violation.
Snow, who examined Arpaio’s actions in contempt hearings over an 18-month period ending in August 2016, recommended the criminal charge against Arpaio 10 days before a primary election.
The recommendation was then handed off to U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton, who noted an unusual procedure in the contempt case that called for her — rather than prosecutors — to file the charge.
She signed off on the charge last October, and prosecutors from Trump’s Justice Department brought the case to trial this summer and secured the conviction.
The Washington Post has reported that Trump had asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions during the spring whether it would be possible to drop Arpaio’s criminal case. After being advised that would be inappropriate, Trump decided to let the case go to trial and, if Arpaio were convicted, could grant a pardon later, the Post reported.
WHAT’S ARPAIO’S GRIPE WITH OBAMA?
The Republican lawman isn’t a fan of Obama, who nine months after taking office angered Arpaio by stripping his officers of their federal immigration arrest powers amid complaints of racial profiling in the sheriff’s immigration patrols.
Arpaio correctly points out that the Justice Department during the Obama administration conducted a yearslong civil rights investigation of his immigration enforcement efforts. The investigation led to a civil rights lawsuit that has since been settled.
But the lawman has erroneously claimed over the years that the investigation was started during the Obama administration. The case was launched in the final six months of Bush’s presidency.
COMMENTS ON THE CASE
Trump, three members of Arizona’s GOP congressional delegation and other Arpaio supporters claimed the lawman was the victim of a political prosecution.
Rep. Paul Gosar said: “The prosecution of Joe Arpaio was purely political and obviously partisan,” echoing statements issued by Reps. Andy Biggs and Trent Franks.
A few days after the pardon, Trump struck a similar tone.
“He’s done a great job for the people of Arizona. He’s very strong on borders,” Trump said. “He’s been strong on illegal immigration.”
While Arpaio is a powerful voice in the movement for tougher border enforcement, all of his immigration crackdowns occurred far away from the international boundary between the United States and Mexico. The southern-most point of Arpaio’s jurisdiction was 80 miles north of the border.
Before the courts and Washington took away Arpaio’s immigration enforcement powers, he carried out more than 80 business raids in search of immigrants who used fraudulent documents to get jobs and another 20 large-scale traffic patrols that targeted immigrants.