Sheriff Joe Arpaio in September called his agency's high-profile arrest of a Chandler police officer "a tough decision that I had to make."
Now, after being ordered by a judge to face a tape-recorded interview by Chandler Sgt. Tom Lovejoy’s defense lawyer, Arpaio is saying he didn’t make the decision at all.
The Maricopa County sheriff, in court paperwork filed late last week, placed full responsibility for the arrest on one of his highest-ranking and most loyal officers, Deputy Chief David Trombi, saying “he alone made the determination to arrest Mr. Lovejoy without any input or discussion by Sheriff Arpaio.”
The dramatic change in Arpaio’s story comes at a time when he is running for re-election and also trying to avoid the lawyer’s interview, which was ordered to take place April 4.
Lovejoy was charged in September with reckless animal cruelty, a misdemeanor, in the death of his police dog, Bandit. The dog died when Lovejoy mistakenly left him in the back of a hot squad vehicle for nearly 13 hours. He has since pleaded not guilty.
Lovejoy’s attorney, Robert Kavanagh, wanted to interview Arpaio to try to show the agency normally doesn’t treat such cases as crimes. At the heart of Kavanagh’s case are three police dogs that died in the care of the sheriff’s office, though none of their handlers was ever charged with a crime.
On Monday, the sheriff, who normally has no problem answering questions about his decisions, declined multiple requests to comment on the case.
Instead, his spokesman, Capt. Paul Chagolla, said the reason the sheriff originally told the public he ordered the arrest of Lovejoy was because “he has the ultimate responsibility” for decisions in the office.
Asked why the sheriff was then trying to avoid the April 4 interview, Chagolla said, “It’s not the normal practice for the sheriff to be interviewed in a criminal investigation.”
Arpaio’s new story marks the second time in recent months he has said he was unaware of controversial and high-profile arrests until after they were made.
In October, sheriff’s deputies arrested two executives of the alternative newspaper chain Village Voice Media because of a story involving Arpaio that was published that morning in the chain’s flagship, the Phoenix New Times.
Arpaio denied knowing about the arrests of those executives, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, until after the fact. County Attorney Andrew Thomas dropped the case the next day, and the executives have since filed a $15 million claim against the county.
Michele Iafrate of Phoenix was the lawyer who filed the paperwork last week in San Tan Justice Court on the sheriff’s behalf. Iafrate’s law firm does regular contract work for the sheriff’s office and in the past has been paid at least $35,000 of taxpayer money for it.
In the court paperwork, Arpaio accused Lovejoy’s lawyer of trying to stir up a “media frenzy” by interviewing the sheriff.
That accusation mirrors those made by Carolynn Lovejoy, the officer’s wife, about Arpaio’s use of the media in this case.
The first time Arpaio made the remark about ordering Lovejoy’s arrest was at a Sept. 5 news conference, parts of which were later broadcast on national TV.
“It is unfortunate Arpaio decided to make this a national media event when he called CNN and MSNBC,” Carolynn Lovejoy said on Monday. “He got on TV and told everybody that he made the decision.”
Tom Lovejoy declined to comment on Monday, deferring questions to wife. Carolynn Lovejoy said they are now trying to reconcile the sheriff’s apparently conflicting statements.
“So which one is the lie?” she said.
Last week’s court filing included a 26-page transcript of an interview Lovejoy’s lawyer had with Trombi, who was a captain in the sheriff’s office until about three weeks after Lovejoy’s arrest, when he was promoted to deputy chief.
In the interview, he told Kavanagh he briefed the sheriff “when needed” about the case.
Later, he said, “Ultimately I gave the order,” according to the transcript. He went on to say that he didn’t need an order from the sheriff because he was following department policies.
Asked if the policy was written down anywhere, he said no, but it was “well-known between the sheriff and myself and the staff in the animal cruelty unit.”
Carolynn Lovejoy was skeptical about Trombi’s account of things.
“It is shameful that Arpaio is now attempting to pass the buck for his actions and place blame on an individual who ... will do what he is told to keep that position,” she said.
The sheriff’s office declined to allow Trombi to be interviewed for this story.
Judge Sam Goodman has yet to decide whether Arpaio still needs to submit to an interview about the case. In his original ruling, Goodman told Arpaio if he did not show up to Kavanagh’s office on April 4, he could be charged with a crime.
Lovejoy is due to face the animal cruelty charge in court on April 18.