The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office drove itself into financial crisis last year with an overtime spending binge on operations to arrest illegal immigrants.
In just three months, MCSO created a $1.3 million deficit, nearly all of which went into deputies’ paychecks for extra work. The rampant overtime spending swept up every law enforcement division of the sheriff’s office: patrol, investigations, SWAT, even aviation services.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Joe Arpaio directed the full resources of his force to help find and arrest illegal immigrants. And MCSO’s human smuggling arrest reports show the agency repeatedly used its helicopter, special operations team and regular patrol deputies during immigration operations.
“We are quickly becoming a full-fledged anti-illegal immigration agency,” Arpaio boasted in a July 2007 news release.
During that conversion, MCSO neared financial collapse and its day-to-day police work suffered, a Tribune investigation found.
Arpaio and his top aides deny that immigration enforcement contributed to the agency’s money problems. They blame largescale investigations, increased criminal activity, the cost of shuttling inmates and efforts to protect Arpaio from a now-discredited assassination plot.
But county payroll data, MCSO arrest reports and budget records from the state Department of Public Safety show otherwise.
On Jan. 19, 2007, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors approved a partnership between the sheriff’s office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The pact granted a hundred deputies federal powers to arrest illegal immigrants for entering the United States without permission.
Overtime spending skyrocketed immediately, payroll records show.
At the end of January, sheriff’s deputies began working 4,500 extra hours every two-week pay period. Previously, MCSO’s law enforcement divisions would collect roughly 2,900 overtime hours per pay period.
That jump was only the beginning.
During one pay period in April, deputies worked more than 9,000 extra hours — three times the amount normally accumulated — and cost the county $373,757.
At the time, state lawmakers were expanding an anti-gang program to target illegal immigrants and poured more than $30 million into it. The program set aside $5 million in grants for local police that had an official partnership with ICE.
The sheriff’s office was then the only department in Arizona with such a partnership. Arpaio asked for all $5 million.
“This strategic and groundbreaking action is what I hope will become the cornerstone of a monumental effort to reduce crime and corruption in Arizona and in this county,” the sheriff wrote in February 2007 to state officials regarding his immigration enforcement.
Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, is House appropriations chairman and MCSO’s most important advocate in the Legislature. Pearce secured grant money for the sheriff’s office to arrest illegal immigrants.
But the state split the $5 million between MCSO, the Pima County Sheriff’s Office and the Phoenix Police Department.
“You can’t just give it all to one agency,” Pearce told the Tribune in April. “It’s a statewide issue.”
Phoenix police took the largest share — $1.8 million for this fiscal year, which began in July.
The state approved $1.5 million for MCSO to form a unit of 15 detectives intended to target human smuggling rings. The sheriff’s office transferred deputies from its law enforcement divisions, including trails and lake patrols, to fill the new human smuggling unit.
MCSO listed the permanent transfers as temporary assignments, which meant the human smuggling deputies were still assigned to their old jobs on paper and, in many cases, were not replaced in the field.
Also, by calling the transfers temporary, the sheriff’s finance officials had no way to monitor the specialized unit.
“They do it to support their operations without any input or reporting back to us,” Loretta Barkell, MCSO’s business services chief, said of the temporary transfers.
While the state awarded the sheriff’s office only a fraction of the sum Arpaio requested, his deputies continued working tens of thousands of extra hours, according to payroll data.
Deputies on the human smuggling detail were among the greatest beneficiaries of the overtime largesse. They regularly worked dozens of extra hours each pay period patrolling rural highways at night and completing reams of paperwork on their hundreds of immigration arrests — all of which added thousands of dollars to their checks.
Detective Ernest A. Quintero, a human smuggling investigator, collected $11,676 in overtime from July through September, records show. He earned $17,000 in regular salary during that period.
Under its grant, the state agreed to pay eight hours of overtime per deputy each month, budget records show.
Quintero is one of eight human smuggling deputies who worked more than 100 extra hours during those three months. The state paid for only 24 hours; county taxpayers paid the rest.
The human smuggling unit itself was just a portion of the sheriff’s overtime surge, though its creation and hurried expansion strained the already shorthanded agency. Overtime has long been a way of life for MCSO, which struggles to fill its deputy positions because competition is intense with other Valley police agencies for trained officers.
The human smuggling unit, which finance records show pulled resources from the patrol districts, forced regular deputies to take on even more overtime to cover their beats. And MCSO allowed deputies who were not assigned to the unit to earn overtime pay doing human smuggling enforcement work, budget records show.
In that July 2007 news release, Arpaio pledged to “saturate Valley cities as well as roadways and highways commonly used as transportation corridors for human trafficking.”
Arrest reports show that regular patrol deputies often made immigration traffic stops and assisted in searches when illegal immigrants evaded arrest.
Shortly after 10 p.m. on Aug. 7, 2007, the driver and several passengers fled their Ford Explorer when Detective Carlos Rangel stopped the SUV for speeding on Interstate 10 near Sun Lakes. Rangel, a human smuggling unit detective, held the eight illegal immigrants who remained in the vehicle and called for help tracking down the rest.
Additional patrol deputies responded, along with the sheriff’s helicopter, and Tohono O’odham police officers.
Regardless, the fleeing suspects escaped.
“Law enforcement officers combed the desert area on foot,” Rangel wrote in his report. “Attempts to locate the fleeing subjects were unsuccessful due (to) the thick brush that was abundant in the area which complicated the search.”
Altogether, the law enforcement divisions spent $1.7 million on extra work from July through September, according to payroll data. That does not include employees in MCSO’s jails.
“If they kept their spending levels up, they were going to blow their budget,” said Lee Ann Bohn, the Maricopa County deputy budget director who oversees the sheriff’s budget.
In October, Bohn received the sheriff’s spending numbers and saw the deficit. She sent e-mails and made phone calls to MCSO and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which approves Arpaio’s budget.
The sheriff’s office controls how it spends its budget. But the board of supervisors can take away that authority if the agency ends a fiscal year over budget.
“That’s the most Draconian measure,” said Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, D-District 5.
Throughout those months, the sheriff’s business staff had warned the enforcement divisions about their overtime binge, said Loretta Barkell, the sheriff’s business services chief.
“Pretty much, (overtime) was carte blanche, wherever they felt they needed to dedicate the staff to do the program or project or whatever,” Barkell said. “Then I have been, all along, dutifully reporting every two weeks, ‘OK, you want to slow down. This is not working.’ ”
“It didn’t really get their attention until November, and then they started to listen,” she added.
The sheriff halted nearly all overtime, including the human smuggling unit’s extra hours, shuttered facilities, reduced jail visitation and, for a time in November, stopped driving inmates to their court dates.
The sheriff also used unfilled positions to absorb some of the overtime cost. MCSO’s patrol division payroll was under budget this year by about 20 percent, the equivalent of 66 deputies.
Sheriff’s officials have provided conflicting explanations about what caused the deficit.
MCSO spokeswoman Lisa Allen told the Tribune in November that the overtime was used on multiple large-scale investigations, including a years-old probe into a Mesa towing firm. “We have to do that work,” she said.
Last month, Arpaio said many of the deputies’ extra work hours went toward investigating an alleged assassination plot against him. Allen added that patrol deputies also worked overtime shuttling inmates from jails.
Capt. Paul Chagolla, a spokesman for the sheriff, said that a rise in violent crime caused the overtime surge.
“We don’t control the crime and when it’s going to happen. And when it happens you have to be in a position to respond to it and investigate thoroughly and professionally,” Chagolla said. “And that will generate overtime.”
The sheriff’s finance records and criminal activity reports do not support MCSO officials’ explanations. And, in fact, they don’t seem to know what caused it. MCSO officials say they haven’t researched what caused the overtime spending.
The agency’s monthly reports to the towns it serves do not show a significant increase in violent crime. And overtime spending spiked in every law enforcement division at the same time, payroll data show, after deputies received federal powers to enforce immigration law.
MCSO could not provide documents to support its claim that detectives’ and patrol deputies’ work in response to the alleged assassination plot against Arpaio contributed significantly to the overtime binge.
Bohn said she did not ask for a detailed explanation about what caused the overtime surge.
Chris Bradley, another county deputy budget director, said his office doesn’t closely monitor the sheriff’s spending unless there are problems.
Even when serious problems surfaced, the board of supervisors did not press MCSO for answers regarding how the agency created a million-dollar deficit.
“Not even we would know that,” Wilcox said. “Because he’s an elected official, we can’t say, ‘Did you do this because of immigration?’ ”
FISCAL BOON NEVER CAME
A year ago, immigration enforcement appeared more likely to fill the sheriff’s coffers than to drain them.
In 2006, Pearce spearheaded a change to the Arizona Department of Public Safety’s Gang Intelligence Team Enforcement. The Legislature added the word “immigration” after the word “gang” — making the acronym “GIITEM” — and boosted its budget from $6.4 million to $26.5 million for the state public safety department to run anti-illegal immigration operations, budget records show.
The state agency focused on violent crimes associated with human smuggling, particularly at drop houses. It formed the Illegal Immigration Prevention and Apprehension Co-op Team, or IIMPACT, which partners the state DPS with Phoenix police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to disrupt violent smuggling rings.
MCSO refused to join IIMPACT and merge its specialized unit with the other agencies, finance records show.
In 2007, the Legislature provided $5 million for grants to local police to do immigration work. To apply, a police department had to have a partnership with ICE, which provided some officers federal powers to arrest illegal immigrants.
The requirements seemed to have been written explicitly for MCSO. The sheriff’s office was poised to become the first Arizona police department with such a partnership after ICE’s Arizona office had resisted such pacts for years.
Deputies had been scouring the rural highways through Gila Bend and Buckeye for a year, arresting hundreds of suspects under Arizona’s new human smuggling law, which took effect in August 2005.
By the time ICE formally approved its partnership with MCSO in February 2007, Arpaio had asked for all $5 million lawmakers set aside for immigration enforcement.
Pearce is a leading proponent for tougher laws on illegal immigration and more widespread enforcement of those laws.
“I’m grateful the sheriffs are elected, because the others have not shifted and they should,” he said. “The public is demanding enforcement.”
Regardless, Pearce now says he did not intend for the grant prerequisites to benefit MCSO alone. Lawmakers removed the requirement that police partner with ICE to receive grants before they divided up the cash; MCSO had to share the state money with Phoenix police and Pima County.
The sheriff’s rampant spending on extra work hours slowed after the state announced the sheriff would receive only $1.5 million for the human smuggling unit, payroll records show. But deputies in every division continued to work twice as much overtime as they had a year earlier.
Deputies had arrested more than 300 illegal immigrants under the state’s human smuggling laws with traffic stops on rural highways, called “roving patrols,” before the Legislature provided MCSO funding.
But with the promise of state money, the sheriff’s office escalated its anti-illegal immigration work. Deputies raided drop houses for the first time in August, launched “crime suppression” sweeps and continued roving patrols for human smugglers and their cargo.
However, MCSO conducted all these operations without money from its state grant, budget records show. The agency did not even formally ask for those dollars until it was already out of money.
“They didn’t request them until November,” said Pennie Gillette-Stroud, criminal investigations chief for the state Department of Public Safety. “But we did not process their requests for the reimbursements until they complied with the (contract) in supplying us with a lot of information.”
Barkell, the sheriff’s finance chief, said the state required records showing the hours that human smuggling deputies worked and data that detailed the impact of their work, like number of arrests and whether the unit disrupted smuggling rings.
MCSO quickly produced the finance records, Barkell said, but the human smuggling unit spent months negotiating what information it had to release about its operations.
CASH FLOW PROBLEMS
The sheriff’s office received its first grant payment in January, $260,945, according to budget records. The sheriff’s office cashed checks from the state totaling about $1 million for immigration enforcement. But the specialized unit left $590,000 of its grant unused because the grant expired in May before deputies filed the reimbursement paperwork for the remaining cash.
Worsening the sheriff’s financial situation, Gov. Janet Napolitano that month also took away an additional $600,000 from the state that Pearce had helped MCSO secure for immigration operations this spring.
In all, the sheriff’s office lost almost $1.2 million in state taxpayer funds it had counted on.
Napolitano said those dollars will be spent serving felony warrants across Arizona.
Arpaio says his agency is undaunted, and in the past month he has stepped up operations to arrest illegal immigrants.
But the reduced cash flow has hampered the sheriff’s work in one key area.
Throughout 2006 and 2007, deputies arrested more than 650 illegal immigrants under Arizona’s anti-human smuggling law. The midlevel felony threatens coyotes and the immigrants they ferry with years in jail if convicted, not voluntary deportation.
Processing such arrests requires many hours spent filling out reports. Paperwork generated much of the human smuggling unit’s overtime last year, deputies said during interviews with the Tribune.
Extra work hours were the first expense the sheriff’s office cut in the fall after county budget officials found the law enforcement agency was on pace to end this fiscal year millions of dollars over budget.
Finance records show MCSO eliminated its deficit. But budget fixes have left the human smuggling unit without cash to continue enforcing immigration law the way it did for more than a year — and the way Arpaio publicly pledges to continue.
Deputies now rarely arrest illegal immigrants under the state smuggling law, MCSO reports show, even when suspects are clearly involved in human smuggling.
On the evening of May 19, MCSO dispatched its specialized unit and regular patrol deputies on a major operation around Wickenburg to bust smugglers’ vehicles. They were successful, stopping four carloads and apprehending 39 illegal immigrants.
However, only one of the immigrants was arrested for human smuggling, deputies’ reports show.
During one stop, patrol deputies found a Dodge Caravan packed with 14 illegal immigrants traveling on U.S. 93, a highway popular with smugglers. The driver and passengers all received voluntary deportations.
“After completing an investigation,” Sgt. Brett Palmer wrote in his report, “no evidence was established that would have led to the arrest of any occupants on state charges.”