The state public records law has proven to be a bit of a problem in the past eight days for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. In two separate court cases, Sheriff Joe Arpaio's agency was reprimanded by Arizona judges who said it blocked or delayed the release of public records to media outlets.
In the most recent decision on Monday, a Pima County Superior Court judge in Tucson ordered the sheriff's office to pay more than $25,000 to the Tucson Citizen newspaper for trying to block the release of records by another agency.
The newspaper asked the Pima County Attorney's Office in July for records of all communications to and from the Maricopa County Sheriff's and Arizona Attorney General's offices, the newspaper's attorney, David Bodney said.
The three agencies were locked in a dispute over a racketeering case, and Arpaio's office claimed that the records should be kept secret because of attorney-client privilege.
The newspaper didn't get the records until about five months later when the Pima County Attorney's Office gave it the records anyway.
On Tuesday, the sheriff's deputy chief Jack MacIntyre called the decision "stunning" because the records were never actually requested from the sheriff's office, yet it's the one being penalized. MacIntyre said it was "more than likely" the sheriff's office will appeal. "Given what we know right now, I think that's the appropriate thing to do," he said.
The move came six days after the state Court of Appeals blasted the sheriff's office in a case involving public records requested by the Phoenix New Times newspaper.
The sheriff's office took too long to get the newspaper records it requested in nine cases in 2004, a three-judge panel ruled Feb. 5. The newspaper is eligible to win money in the case, but that decision will be made later by a lower-court judge.
New Times's lawyer Steve Suskin said Tuesday: "We were sandbagged, stonewalled and shut off, and only after we filed the lawsuit did they file any records."
That echoed Bodney's concerns that it takes litigation to get the sheriff's office to fulfil the requests. But MacIntyre said the sheriff's office handles thousands of records requests a year and doesn't usually have issues.
"I know that the media doesn't want to hear this, but 'public records' means public," he said. "It doesn't only mean media."