Alleging “an extreme level of deceit and dishonesty” by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Maricopa County’s longest-tenured elected supervisor says the sheriff’s office needs new leadership.
“There’s honestly no way in good conscience I could vote for the sheriff,” Andy Kunasek, a Republican, said during a sit-down interview with 12 News.
Kunasek, a self-described “limited-government fiscal conservative” from Paradise Valley is calling it quits this year after finishing his fifth term.
As a member of the governing body that approved sheriff’s office funds for nearly 20 years, Kunasek says he witnessed up close how Arpaio’s decisions wasted tax dollars and eroded the public’s trust in law enforcement.
“I think it’s hard for conservatives out there to think someone [in law enforcement] is really capable of violating that trust,” Kunasek said.
“Diverted” expenses by MCSO
Arpaio declined to provide an interview about Kunasek’s comments. A spokesperson for Arpaio’s campaign issued a written statement calling the claims “startling and purely political.”
“Especially in light of the fact that County Supervisor Kunasek overwhelmingly voted in support of Sheriff Arpaio and his office’s positions during his tenure on the Board of Supervisors,” said Arpaio Campaign Manager Chad Willems.
Kunasek says he regrets approving many expenditures for the sheriff’s office, especially after learning how the money was spent.
The list of documented misspending is long. It includes a 2010 audit by the county’s Office of Management and Budget that showed MCSO misused at least $50 million from a fund intended for jail operations -- an accounting scheme County Manager David Smith then called “a monumental financial headache Arpaio created.”
County audits also showed sheriff’s officials routinely used county budget credit cards to charge expensive meals and stays at luxury hotels over several years.
Kunasek says the best example of MCSO leaders vowing to spend money one way and then diverting it to something else was the headline-grabbing scandal in 2008 involving 400 botched sex-crimes cases. Many of the ignored cases involved allegations of molestation, and one resulted in Maricopa County agreeing to pay a $3.5 million settlement to a teenage victim’s family.
But as Kunasek notes, MCSO administrators already knew as early as 2006 there was a backlog of sex cases, many involving molestation of children. As county records show, MCSO chiefs went to the board of supervisors at the time to request extra funds for the purpose of purchasing equipment and hiring more detectives for the Special Victims Unit (SVU).
“Without any hesitation at all, we provided close to a million dollars to fill that void,” Kunasek said.
A subsequent audit showed the money never went to hire investigators for the SVU. During that same year, however, MCSO announced the creation of the Human Smuggling Unit.
“And that’s probably the best example of, I don’t know if bait and switch is the right term for what happened in that instance ... but in hindsight, that money was completely diverted off into another area,” Kunasek said.
“Ill-gotten gains” by Arpaio
Arpaio’s decision to illegally dedicate manpower to enforce federal immigration laws led to the Melendres civil rights lawsuit, which MCSO lost in 2013. The court-ordered remedies that resulted from the defeat and the subsequent contempt proceedings against Arpaio have cost the county more than $50 million.
U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow ruled MCSO not only violated constitutional rights of Latino drivers, but that Arpaio purposely delayed halting immigration operations for 18 months in order to benefit his 2012 reelection campaign. Plaintiffs made that argument during contempt proceedings by showing TV clips of Arpaio describing himself as “a poster boy” for illegal immigration enforcement while he was in violation of the court injunction.
"I almost feel like those are ill-gotten gains that are funding a political campaign," said Kunasek, referring to contributions the sheriff received while disobeying the court order.
Arpaio denied he purposely violated court orders, saying he wasn’t aware of details of the injunction.
“I honestly believe that the sheriff did understand the judge’s orders to stop doing what he was doing and made a conscious decision to ignore it, and to actually, unbelievably, use that judge’s orders as a fundraising tool,” Kunasek said. “In hindsight, he played off our natural fears as Americans. Played against all kinds of emotions, enlisting people’s hearts and souls for all kinds of money when we taxpayers are now footing the bill.”
When asked earlier this year about the growing cost of the Melendres case to taxpayers, Arpaio responded, “Maybe you ought to blame the people who caused this to occur, like the government.”
Kunasek said he was not surprised by Arpaio’s response.
“I think I know Joe well enough to know it’s always going to be someone else’s fault,” Kunasek said.
“Weaponization” of the sheriff’s office
Kunasek says more important than the money spent by the county for Arpaio’s actions is the damage done to the confidence people have in law enforcement. Kunasek experienced firsthand what it was like to be targeted by sheriff’s investigators.
“I’ve heard it called the weaponization of law enforcement for political purposes. It was really shocking,” Kunsasek said.
During a tumultuous era in the county from 2006 to 2010, Arpaio and then-county attorney Andrew Thomas brought public corruption cases against supervisors, county staff members and judges. Nearly all the allegations, which included bribery and obstruction of justice, were dismissed.
Independent investigators later determined sheriff’s investigators misled a grand jury in the cases.
County supervisors, staff and judges sued for malicious prosecution and were awarded a combined total of nearly $10 million in damages and legal fees.
Thomas was disbarred from practicing law. Arpaio’s office was blamed by county administrators for more than $38 million in legal costs. Unlike other supervisors, Kunasek opted not to sue for punitive damages. He received $123,000 for legal compensation.
Kunasek does not discuss the issue lightly. As someone who always considered himself pro-law enforcement, he says the experience was traumatic and made him realize it’s possible for a police force to unfairly target individuals.
“People want to believe those we elect to protect us are out doing that across the board, not picking and choosing what to enforce, who to enforce against," he said. "Those are hard things to get around but I think the history and the facts say those trusts were violated."
“He played off our natural fears…”
Looking back over two decades, Kunasek says he believes Arpaio’s most important decisions have been made with one priority in mind.
“I have no training in psychology or any of that, but my observations are that his primary motivation is 'What’s good for Joe?'” Kunasek said. “What’s good to move the needle? What’s good to enhance his public image? So the end can justify any means. And that’s a really dangerous combination of any traits.”
Last month, Kunasek was the deciding vote with the board of supervisors not to approve a request by Arpaio to fund a Washington, D.C.-based law firm. Arpaio wants to use the firm to appeal Judge Snow’s order to transfer all internal investigative authority to a third party.
Kunasek says he was torn on the issue because, as a believer in limited government, he doesn’t like the idea of a federal judge meddling in the affairs of a local law enforcement agency. But Kunasek is clearly agitated by what the county has already been forced to pay for Arpaio’s legal troubles.
And he’s convinced the office was guilty of abusing its power.
“The violations and the failure was so profound I do think it probably begs for some oversight,” Kunasek said.
Soon he will no longer be voting on funding decisions for the sheriff. In the meantime, he says, he does not take lightly any decision that restricts the sheriff’s office’s authority.
“I’ve had unique experiences with the sheriff, and I think there’s been an extreme level of deceit and dishonesty,” Kunasek said.
Copyright 2016 KPNX