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Janet Napolitano's Sorry Service Makes Her a Terrible Choice as Homeland Security Secretary

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The hearings foreshadowed Napolitano's political strength of obscuring failure while rallying a constituency.

"It really did bring home how issues of women really didn't have an avenue to be heard at that time," Napolitano said of the experience.

This posturing conveniently overlooked the fact that the Thomas hearing provided an unprecedented "avenue": the United States Senate. Far from being ignored or shunted aside, the proceedings were broadcast throughout the land. The Hill allegations were, in fact, heard; Napolitano simply failed to block the ascension of Thomas.

Shortly thereafter, President Bill Clinton nominated Napolitano to be the United States Attorney for the state of Arizona, despite the fact that she had never prosecuted a single case.

Her appointment was delayed for more than a year as the Senate wrangled over whether or not she had coached a critical Hill witness to change testimony.

As an inexperienced U.S. Attorney, Napolitano's political calculations would protect Arizona's most notorious violator of human rights, a sheriff who would go on to campaign in the presidential primaries as an anti-immigration spokesman.

Governor Napolitano teamed up with Sheriff Joe Arpaio in a jointly signed letter of complaint to the head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, on August 14, 2006.

The Napolitano and Arpaio correspondence is, frankly, bizarre.

Their complaints regard the head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) in Arizona, Robert Medina. The governor and the sheriff wanted more cooperation.

But Medina's departure from Arizona to Texas had already been announced. He was replaced by Alonzo Pena (who has now been replaced by Matthew Allen).

The note, and the accompanying press release, appeared to be a political stunt to shore up the governor's tough-on-immigration credentials before the fall election. And her coordinated effort with Arpaio would bear rotten fruit.

At the time of the letter, Arpaio had twice been refused efforts to have his deputies cross-trained under 287(g) to arrest illegal aliens.

Once Arpaio's staff and his posse were trained by ICE, the sheriff and his deputies stepped up anti-immigrant enforcement and all hell broke loose.

Arpaio's raids became infamous nationally. His highly publicized sweeps into Mexican neighborhoods saw people with brown skin pulled over unilaterally.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, in a singular act of courage, demanded this past April that the FBI investigate the sheriff's alleged racial profiling, accusing Arpaio of "a pattern and practice of conduct that includes discriminatory harassment, improper stops, searches, and arrests."

A Justice Department probe is ongoing.

The thug tactics of the sheriff made him a darling of conservative cable television and national talk radio and a target of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other mainstream media.

But the closed-border crowd loved Arpaio. Mitt Romney even summoned the sheriff to the Midwest to drum up anti-immigrant voters during the Republican primaries.

Sheriff Arpaio's roundups climaxed shortly before this month's election when a heavily armed posse raided the City Hall and library of Mesa, a community where the chief of police and mayor had publicly opposed Arpaio's brutal tactics. Armed like SWAT teams and accompanied by dogs, more than 60 deputies arrested three suspected Mexicans employed to empty trashcans.

The sheriff that Napolitano had teamed up with, when it suited her political agendas, was so out of control that the governor eventually cut off what funds of his she controlled through federal grants. It slowed Arpaio down not one bit.

But Governor Napolitano, better than almost anyone, knew precisely what she was doing when she, once again, cynically climbed into bed with the sheriff to write Michael Chertoff.

If not for Governor Napolitano, Sheriff Arpaio would, and should, have been prosecuted 10 years earlier.


The U.S. Justice Department notified the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors on March 25, 1996, that Sheriff Arpaio was under investigation. In a 15-page letter, federal prosecutors laid out their concerns that Arpaio had willfully violated the constitutional rights of prisoners in his jail.

The concerns were not picayune. Arpaio was accused of excessive brutality and ignoring serious medical needs.

Janet Napolitano, U.S. Attorney for Arizona, was part of the Justice Department and kept in the loop. In fact, she was copied on every piece of correspondence in the matter.

Not coincidentally, Arpaio's tactics endeared him to the voting public, which kept the sheriff's approvals rating near an unprecedented 80 percent. The sheriff propelled this groundswell of support with an unending series of media pronouncements about his prisoners: "Making conditions so miserable they will never want to come back," "It's lucky [they] have food."

The sheriff bragged that he spent more on feeding the department's dogs than he spent on inmate chow. He clothed them in pink underwear, housed them in tents, and worked them in chain gangs. While the conditions garnered enormous gouts of publicity, the stunts masked the brutal conditions inside the cells.

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Michael Lacey is the executive editor of Village Voice Media, a group of 15 metropolitan newsweeklies that stretch from Miami to San Francisco. He writes frequently for Phoenix New Times, which he co-founded in 1970. In 1997, he co-founded New Times Broward-Palm Beach, and since then, the paper has seen circulation increase nearly ten-fold. Lacey’s work has been recognized in the following journalism competitions: Unity Awards in Media, Mencken Awards, Heywood Broun Awards, Golden Quill Awards, Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, Nixon Newspaper National Journalism Writing Awards, John Bartlow Martin Awards, Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Awards, Best of the West Awards, Maggie Awards, and the Arizona Press Club’s Don Schellie Award for Feature Column Writing.
Contact: Michael Lacey