PHOENIX — An examination in Arizona's Maricopa County has found that the sheriff's office, widely known for efforts against illegal immigrants, inappropriately spent $99 million from two jail funds over the last eight years to pay for other law enforcement operations – including immigration patrols.
The $99 million figure released Wednesday is an update to an estimate made in September by budget officials who said the sheriff's office was believed to have used $60 million and $80 million over four or five years from a jail tax on other purposes. Since then, officials said they discovered that the sheriff's office had inappropriately spent money from a second jail account.
Maricopa County officials also said that Arpaio's office had spent the money on unsuccessful criminal cases brought against two county officials and a judge.
"This is really a disaster for the county," said County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, who along with another colleague faced criminal charges in cases that were investigated by Arpaio's office and eventually dismissed.
The findings by county budget officials discussed at a meeting Wednesday were sent to federal prosecutors who were already investigating Arpaio on abuse of power allegations.
The sheriff has gained notoriety in part for his special traffic patrols that target people who are in the country illegally.
The sweeps – Arpaio's most visible immigration enforcement tactic – have drawn heavy criticism from civil rights advocates who accused the police agency of racially profiling countless Latinos. Arpaio has denied the allegations.
Arpaio was not at Wednesday's meeting because he was at the scene of an immigration raid at a business. But interim Chief Deputy Sheriff Jerry Sheridan said there was nothing criminal about the mistake, which he blame on an outdated payroll system.
He said the system failed to adequately track when jail officers were transferred to regular patrol.
Last year, officials asked federal prosecutors already investigating Arpaio to determine whether the use of the money was a criminal violation.
The sheriff's office had disputed the estimate provided in September, but have since discovered that the $99 million figure is accurate, Sheridan said.
Robbie Sherwood, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Arizona, which is investigating Arpaio's office, declined to say whether the misuse of the $99 million was a criminal violation or whether the spending is part of the ongoing investigation of the sheriff's office.
The money came from a sales tax dedicated solely to running county jails and from a restricted fund set up for inmates to buy household items and make phone calls while they are in jail. The $99 million consists of $84.7 million from the jail tax and $14.8 million from the inmates' fund.
Sheridan said the sheriff's office believed that deputies' salaries could be paid through the inmate fund, but later discovered that such a use wasn't allowed.
The toughest questions for the sheriff's office came from Wilcox and Supervisor Don Stapley, who was also investigated by the sheriff's office in a case later dismissed.
Stapley asked Sheridan who gave the orders to spend the jail tax money. "Somebody had to give the command to do this," Stapley said.
Sheridan said he doesn't believe one person is responsible for the mistake.
In an interview, Stapley said he believed Arpaio's office opened an investigation of him a few years ago when Stapley started asking questions about the costs of the sheriff's immigration efforts and junkets taken by sheriff's officials.
County officials say the county will have to pull $99 million out of its regular budget over several years to pay back the two jail funds. It's not known whether that would lead to cuts in services provided by the county.
Arpaio had been embroiled in nasty yearslong legal disputes with county officials and judges.
Investigations by the sheriff's office resulted in charges against Wilcox and Stapley, but those cases were thrown out after a judge ruled that the county's then-top prosecutor had a conflict of interest in pressing the case against Wilcox. The decision led to the dismissal of Stapley's charges.
Wilcox was accused of voting on contracts involving a Hispanic advocacy group that had given her loans and never filing conflict-of-interest statements.
Stapley was accused of getting mortgage loans under fraudulent pretenses and allegedly misusing campaign funds he raised to run for president of a national association of county officials.
Arpaio said in a written statement there is more trust between county officials and his office, but that he hopes that Wilcox and Stapley put their personal feelings aside.
"My only disappointment came from comments by two board members indicating that some bitterness on their behalf remains," Arpaio said.