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Maricopa County halts immigration funds for Arpaio

PHOENIX – The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday voted to postpone the acceptance of $1.6 million from the state to help pay for illegal immigration enforcement by Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

The Republican-majority board until now has consistently supported Arpaio and generally agreed philosophically with his viewpoint on illegal immigration.

Observers said the decision could signal that the board is concerned by federal inquires into Arpaio’s practices and is another example of the toxic political environment between county government and the sheriff.

The money is meant to supplement Arpaio’s immigration enforcement through an agreement with the state Department of Public Safety. The board, which must accept the funds before Arpaio can have them, will take up the issue in 30 days, hoping officials can negotiate cuts to the sheriff’s budget.

Arpaio told The Arizona Republic that he would not comment on the board’s decision. However, a sheriff’s official said immigration enforcement would continue with or without the extra money.

“Ordinarily, the board, like any political body, has traditional viewpoints that are genuine, they have opinions, they act on them, and those opinions don’t really change,” said Lisa Graham Keegan, who last year worked as the board’s spokeswoman.

“In order to change opinions on long-held beliefs, there has to be a series of definitive actions, and that’s what’s going on here. What has happened with the sheriff makes people question him — even in the minds of people who’ve consistently supported his actions in the past. Now, in political bodies, in the streets, in the neighborhoods, there’s a dialogue going on about has he gone over the top. I just think that’s what’s happening with this board — they’re having to judge the quality of his actions.”

On Wednesday, the supervisors heard testimony from Arpaio critics and sheriff’s officials.

Opponents argued that the board should refuse the money on several grounds: given an investigation into his operations by the U.S. Department of Justice, the congressional hearing on Thursday into discrimination complaints and the anticipated revision of guidelines by Homeland Security that allow local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws

Laurita Moore, a college teacher and Ahwatukee resident, said she has to check to make sure her students aren’t swept up during sweeps.

“I have to worry about whether the sweep that was done in Guadalupe the other day got that particular student, and I have to start checking. How dare – how dare – you treat my students this way,” she said. “They have conducted no crime … they were brought here by their parents yet they are being persecuted in a kind of ugly persecution that we have not seen since World War II Germany. Why are you enabling that? Please, stop this now.”

The supervisors also expressed concern that the Sheriff’s Office has refused to submit a detailed list that includes suggested cuts of 20 percent for the 2009-10 budget. All other county departments except for the treasurer have submitted proposed cuts, which have helped officials slash $61.3 million from a $138.2 million deficit.

Sheriff’s officials have asked budget officials to give a targeted reduction amount, which is not the process used to cut the budget. Officials typically analyze the impacts cuts would have on individual services, and then come up with acceptable budget cuts.

Tension also has mounted between county leaders and the Sheriff’s Office over tactics used into Arpaio’s an ongoing investigation into a county project, and the investigation and prosecution of Supervisor Don Stapley. The supervisor faces 118 felony and misdemeanor counts related to his financial-disclosure forms. Stapley has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The contract for the $1.6 million essentially requires the county to match 15 percent of the grant — or$240,000.

“He’s done a magnificent job with a lot of different things,” Chairman Max Wilson said. “It’s easy for me to say we want the sheriff to go out and get the bad guys – and we do – and that’s the reason I’ve supported him. But what isn’t OK is what if they aren’t the bad guys? And how are they treated if they aren’t the bad guys?”

Last year, former Gov. Janet Napolitano signed an executive order stripping Arpaio of the $1.6 million and redirected it to a fugitive task force.

The money funds a 50-person task force that tackles illegal immigration and human smuggling, among other functions.

Republican legislative leadership gave the money back to Arpaio in a budget package earlier this year. Democrats, however, want to take back the money because this years’ budget shortfall has grown.

Supervisors Fulton Brock, Don Stapley, Max Wilson and Mary Rose Wilcox postponed the vote; Andy Kunasek wanted to accept the money. Over the last year or so, Wilcox, a Democrat, has consistently voted against accepting money to fund immigration operations.

The agreement would have been effective April 1. It does not detail if there would be a reduction or loss of funding if the board accepts the money at a later date. According to the agreement, DPS would make four quarterly transfers of $400,000 to MCSO to pay for up to 85 percent of expenses; MCSO would pay a minimum of 15 percent.

The first transfer would have happened on April 1, the last on Jan. 1, 2010.

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