PHOENIX The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has been ordered to pay a newspaper $25,000 in legal fees stemming from a battle over Arizona public-records laws, the third such loss for Sheriff Joe Arpaio since summer.
The legal fees were awarded on Feb. 11 by a judge in Pima County, who ruled that Arpaio's office violated the law by taking from July to December to produce records requested by the Tucson Citizen.
The loss is the third in recent months for Arpaio. Last week, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that his office failed to turn over public records to the Phoenix New Times. Last August, the Court of Appeals ruled in a case brought by the West Valley View newspaper that the sheriff's office could not arbitrarily withhold news releases from publications it did not like.
"The message is that members of the public should not be obliged to litigate against Sheriff Arpaio whenever they hope to inspect public records in this case, records that the Pima County Attorney wanted to disclose but could not because of Sheriff Arpaio's objections," said Phoenix attorney David Bodney, who represented the Citizen.
The Arizona Supreme Court declined yesterday to grant a request by Arpaio's office to review the Court of Appeals' West Valley View ruling, but a senior sheriff's official said an appeal of the latest ruling in the Tucson Citizen case is planned.
"Judges make mistakes," said Deputy Chief Jack MacIntyre. "We never refused a public-records request to the Tucson Citizen."
The most recent ruling developed after the Citizen asked for records in a dispute between the Pima County Attorney's Office and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office over who should prosecute a racketeering case and claim more than $30 million in seized assets.
Sheriff's detectives broke up four online gambling rings last April, and under federal racketeering laws any seized money is split between prosecuting and arresting agencies.
Normally, Attorney General Terry Goddard's office would prosecute, but he handed the case to Pima County to avoid a conflict because his office is being investigated by the Maricopa County Sheriff's and Attorney's offices over an unrelated case.
The attorney for the Sheriff's Office sent a letter to Goddard and Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, calling the move an "unlawful exercise of authority, dominion or control over the Sheriff's files" and threatening to sue.
The Citizen learned of the dispute and asked for correspondence between Pima County and Arpaio lawyer Dennis Wilenchik. County Attorney Barbara LaWall agreed to turn over the letters, but asked Wilenchik to sign off. He refused, accusing her of using a "journalistic plant," and saying that honoring the public-records request would violate attorney-client privilege.
A suit filed by the Citizen led to a favorable ruling in December, with Judge Charles V. Harrington ordering most of the documents handed over.
The Citizen then asked the court to make Arpaio's office pay its attorneys fees and for a finding that the refusal was groundless, harassment and in bad faith. Harrington granted the attorneys fees, but did not act on the second part of the request.