The Justice Department sued Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio on Thursday, saying his office has repeatedly declined to hand over documents to federal investigators examining whether his aggressive tactics against illegal immigrants have violated their civil rights.
Arpaio, whose Phoenix area office has drawn widespread attention for his unusual practices, has been the focus of U.S. investigators, who have opened criminal and civil investigations of the sheriff and his office.
Justice officials said that Arpaio’s decision not to respond to routine document requests was rare, and that he had produced few of the documents sought.
“The actions of the sheriff’s office are unprecedented,” said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division.
In a statement, Arpaio and his attorney suggested that the lawsuit is a publicity stunt and said that the sheriff’s office had turned over “thousands of pages” of documents and that it pledged as recently as this week to cooperate with federal authorities.
“These actions make it abundantly clear that Arizona, including the Sheriff, is Washington’s new whipping boy,” Arpaio said in a statement. “It’s time to take the gloves off.”
A federal grand jury in Phoenix is examining whether Arpaio misappropriated federal money and used his office to intimidate his political opponents. The Justice Department’s civil rights division is investigating whether Arpaio’s office engaged in “discriminatory police practices and unconstitutional searches and seizures,” and whether his jail discriminated against Hispanic inmates, according to letters the division sent to Arpaio.
The latest lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Phoenix, asks a federal judge to force the sheriff’s office to comply with 51 requests for documents and to provide investigators access to jails, command staff, officers and inmates.