The US Justice Department filed a lawsuit on Thursday against Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County for not cooperating with an investigation into whether his department was systematically violating the rights of Hispanics.
Officials from US President Barack Obama’s administration called the suit the first time in 30 years that the federal government had to sue to compel a law enforcement agency to cooperate with an investigation concerning Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“The actions of the sheriff’s office are unprecedented,” Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the department’s civil rights division, said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that the department was forced to resort to litigation to gain access to public documents and facilities.”
At a news conference Thursday, Arpaio said he was surprised by the lawsuit, since he thought his lawyers and those of the government had been close to an agreement.
“I’m not going to be intimidated by the federal government going to court against us,” he said.
The suit comes after more than a year of wrangling between Arpaio, the self-declared toughest sheriff in the US, and the federal government, which began an investigation last year into whether his department was engaging in discrimination against Hispanics in and around Phoenix in its immigration sweeps and jail policies.
The US Justice Department issued 51 requests for documents, most of which Arpaio’s department ignored, as well as asking for tours of department facilities and interviews with commanders, staff members and inmates.
Arpaio, who has denied that he engages in racial profiling, has remained defiant of the government’s investigation. His lawyers have repeatedly refused to provide the documents sought by the US Justice Department or provide unfettered access to its facilities.
“It is ironic that the very sheriff who regularly demands that others turn over their papers has refused to turn over his papers,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which has been critical of Arpaio.
Arpaio’s legal woes are growing. A federal grand jury in Phoenix is also looking into whether he abused his authority by pushing bogus investigations and intimidating county workers through after-hours visits to their homes.
Last year, the federal government ended a cooperative agreement with Arpaio that allowed his deputies to enforce immigration law. The sheriff has continued his sweeps of Hispanic neighborhoods to enforce state immigration laws.
The federal lawsuits have spurred the ire of many Arizona conservatives, who contend that the state has been forced to act because the federal government has not secured the Southwest border. Arpaio, although vilified by many, has strong support as well.
Active on his Twitter account, Arpaio has recently taken issue with an article in the Hollywood Reporter that linked him with a violent character from the new movie Machete who killed a pregnant Mexican woman to prevent her from giving birth in the US.
Arpaio accused the US administration of treating him as a “whipping boy” and engaging in “a fishing expedition.”
“These actions make it abundantly clear that Arizona, including this Sheriff, is Washington’s new whipping boy,” said Arpaio. “Now it’s time to take the gloves off,” he added in a prepared statement.