The Day Janet Napolitano Will Never Live Down

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Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, you may have heard, is being considered for the post of Homeland Security secretary by President-Elect Barack Obama.

Earlier today, we posted a story which provides a litany of reasons why Napolitano would make a lousy candidate because of her miserable record of enabling anti-immigrant troglodytes and otherwise subverting civil rights in favor of political expediency.

The story briefly mentions one episode in the Napolitano saga that I personally witnessed, and I thought I'd spell it out a little more fully here...

At the time, I was a staff writer for the Phoenix New Times, and for two years, I'd been reporting on America's Most Cowardly Sheriff, a liar and con man named Joe Arpaio who, to this day, has yahoos convinced that he's "tough on crime" for having inmates maimed by jail guards as a public relations policy. One of the people I wrote about during that time -- and part of what motivated Amnesty International to investigate the jails -- was a paraplegic who was taken into custody because he had a small amount of marijuana on him. Jail guards didn't like it when he requested that a jail nurse give him a catheter so he could urinate - so they pulled paralyzed man out of his wheelchair and strapped him down in a medieval torture device known as a "restraint chair," breaking his neck.

This was how Arpaio got tough on crime. By maiming paraplegics.

For those with a more Constitution-based notion of how a county jail works -- a place where most people are only awaiting trial and therefore are presumed to be innocent -- Arpaio's antics, always aimed purely to get him television coverage, weren't very entertaining. We were heartened, therefore, to learn that the federal government had responded to repeated cases of inmate abuse with an investigation of Arpaio's jail.

Some of us eagerly waited the result of that investigation, knowing that with a Democrat in the White House, and Janet Reno actually showing some interest in the matter, the feds could make short work of Arpaio and his hellish jail which, his employees repeatedly told me, not only endangered citizens serving short DUI sentences, but also endangered the employees themselves. A finding of abuse in the jails could mean, for example, that the feds could force Arpaio to pay for federal monitors to watch his every move until he cleaned up his act. And with the threat of paying the feds millions to babysit their sheriff, even the gutless county board of supervisors would have to act, wouldn't they?

On that October day, Napolitano called a press conference to announce the findings of the two-year investigation. It was her last day as the US Attorney for Arizona, and we all knew that the next year she'd be campaigning to become the state's Attorney General.

What followed was truly amazing, and still stands out in the memories of other people I know who witnessed it.

My sources had told me that the investigation had found exactly what we'd reported for years -- that the jails were liability sinkholes -- so it was somewhat shocking when the press conference started and Napolitano and Arpaio emerged to address us looking like old pals.

Napolitano went first, announcing that as a result of the investigation, Arpaio had promised to make some improvements in his jails. And although a federal lawsuit was being filed, she dismissed it as a mere formality. Napolitano, the federal government's highest legal representative in the state, actually referred to the lawsuit as just a "lawyer's paper," as if it carried no more weight than an office memo reminding everyone to dress down on Casual Friday.

The message was clear: the feds were going to do nothing about Joe's jails. And then it was the sheriff's turn to talk. Was he humbled by the investigation? Was he chastened by the "lawyer's paper?"

While Napolitano stood by, expressionless, Arpaio launched into his standard stump speech -- the one he gives to Rotary clubs and retiree community groups every day of the week, whether it's an election year or not -- that he's the Toughest Sheriff in America and nobody is going to tell him how to run his jails.

And she just stood there, taking it.

Satisfied that Arpaio had been exonerated, the TV journalists started taking apart their cameras, and the daily reporters headed back to file their stories. But I stayed behind, trying to get Napolitano to answer a simple question.

Where, I asked, were the findings? Where was this "lawyer's paper" she was talking about? What was the actual result of that two year investigation?

"We'll get it for you later," I was told.

A couple of hours later, long after the TV cameras were gone, Napolitano's office turned over the actual findings of the federal investigation.

These were the things that Janet Napolitano had known about when she stood there, before the cameras, and let Arpaio tell the world that no one would tell him how to run his jails:

"Jail inmates are subject to use of excessive force and use of excessive and improper mechanical restraints by Jail employees, and Defendants fail to protect Jail inmates from such actions," read the report of findings. "Defendants have been consciously aware of, but deliberately indifferent to [such use of force] for a substantial period of time," it continues. "Defendants have failed to address adequately the misconduct described . . . though they consciously knew of that misconduct. . . . Unless restrained by this Court, Defendants will continue to engage in the conduct. . . . Such conduct and practices have and will cause inmates confined in the Jail irreparable harm."

Does that sound like an exoneration?

Napolitano, in other words, had all the information she needed to crack down on Arpaio and end early on what is now a shameful, 15-year history of civil rights abuses in Maricopa County's jail system. Instead, she hid the truth from the mainstream press and stood by as Arpaio boasted that he was doing nothing wrong.

And what did it gain Napolitano? Would it surprise you to know that a few years later, Arpaio risked the wrath of his own Republican Party to endorse his friend, the Democrat Janet Napolitano, in her successful run for Governor? And that she continues, as governor, to play best buddies with him in matters such as bullying new immigrants?

Obama, surely you can do better.


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