making local government more ethical

Harassment and Intimidation by Government Officials — Another Visit to Maricopa County

What do the BP oil spill and local government ethics have in common? Kenneth Feinberg.

This week, Feinberg was chosen to work out the BP oil spill claims, and today he is expected to be hired to work out the claims against Maricopa County, home of Phoenix, based on charges of harassment and abuse of power against sheriff Joe Arpaio and former county attorney Andrew Thomas, who is running for Arizona attorney general. According to an article posted yesterday on the ABA Journal website, suits have been filed against the county by judges, elected officials, managers, and employees, and up to 100 claims in all might be filed by the time the dust settles. However, there appears to be no sign of blocking the principal well that has produced all this harassment, the county sheriff.

Feinberg is being hired because just about all the qualified people in Arizona either have some sort of conflict of interest or would not be willing to take the job on. Feinberg is seen as big and independent enough to be a match for Arpaio. I just hope his immigration papers are in order. Fortunately, Ellis Island records are now available online.

The harassment has taken many forms, including criminal investigations (complete with visits to officials' neighbors) and suits for alleged racketeering. The ugliest harassment took the form of the sheriff selecting as a process server, to personally hand a RICO complaint to a judge, a man who had been convicted for threatening physical violence against that judge.

Harassment is one of the worst forms of misuse of office. An official uses the power of his office not only to make life miserable for anyone who opposes him, but to intimidate the great majority of people into supporting him or at least being afraid of speaking out in opposition. It not only uses public office to further the personal interests of the offending official, but it causes the personal interests of other government officials, including the desire to preserve their reputations, to determine what they say and do.

Unethical officials sometimes seek to destroy the reputations and careers of those who oppose them, usually in dishonest ways. This creates not only an unethical environment, but an environment of fear and mutual hatred, which undermines the government in numerous ways. The most damaging result is scaring honest citizens away from participation in government. It also, as in the case of Maricopa County, can lead to enormous costs for taxpayers to defend and settle suits brought against the government (remember: the individual perpetrators don't have to pay to defend themselves). When you have to bring in a big name to save taxpayers money, you know things are bad.

For the full story behind this story, read the ABA Journal's April article "The Maricopa Courthouse War," by Terry Carter.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics