Maricopa County sheriff candidate Dan Saban said Tuesday he would dismantle the sheriff's controversial human smuggling unit and reassign the personnel to several multiagency task forces.
Saban's plan strikes at the core of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's efforts to focus the sheriff's office on enforcing state and federal illegal immigration policy.
The redeployment would focus the agency's limited manpower on rooting out "serious" criminals, Saban said.
Saban, a Democrat who is making his second attempt to unseat Arpaio, a four-term incumbent Republican, outlined his plan during a news conference in Phoenix on Tuesday.
According to his plan:
- Eleven sheriff's office employees would be reassigned to a force headed by the U.S. Marshals Service that hunts fugitives wanted on outstanding warrants.
- Seven employees would be placed on a task force led by the Arizona Department of Public Safety that concentrates on illegal immigrants.
- Two deputies would be dispatched to a state task force that hunts fugitives.
- A deputy lieutenant would be assigned to head a steering committee composed of state, county, police and business representatives created to recommend a "fair, consistent and equitable" method to enforce the new state employer sanctions law.
- The remaining member of the human smuggling unit would be reassigned to other duties, Saban said.
The unit is made up of nearly two dozen dedicated members.
"The current sheriff brags that he is tough, but his immigration sweeps expose him as a sheriff who is careless about the serious crimes that endanger our families and our businesses," Saban said.
"He continues to divert deputies and tens of thousands of our tax dollars in search of immigrants, but ignores the nearly 40,000 serious outstanding felony warrants," he said.
In June, Arpaio stated that his deputies had arrested more than 1,000 illegal immigrants on state charges since a human smuggling law went into effect in mid-2005. Deputies have arrested hundreds more on federal charges.
In response to Saban's plan to dismantle the human smuggling unit, MCSO spokesman Capt. Paul Chagolla issued an e-mailed statement that in part called the sheriff's political opponent "immoral and unethical."
Chagolla's statement added, "The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office under the direction of Sheriff Joe Arpaio has enjoyed numerous successes in all areas of law enforcement. Deputies under Sheriff Arpaio's direction are continually focused on removing serious felons from our communities."
Later, Saban said he wasn't surprised that Arpaio's official county spokesman used a county computer during work hours to call him "immoral and unethical," a statement that could be considered campaigning.
"It's clearly campaigning on- duty, once again at our expense," said Saban, the former Buckeye police chief. "This is an ongoing issue with him. It's just part of his wasteful spending, how he utilizes his office to campaign."
Former Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley, a Republican who spoke at Saban's news conference, supported the idea of reassigning the human smuggling unit members to various task forces.
"Today's law enforcement leaders must not only be aggressive, but they also must be smarter - and one of the ways they can be smarter is to partner with other agencies in a joint effort to deal with very difficult sophisticated problems," said Romley, who often clashed with Arpaio when they both held office.
In a related matter, the sheriff's office issued a news release Tuesday stating that it had returned approximately $5 million from its 2007-08 budget to the county.
In the release, Arpaio said, "Balancing a $295 million ... budget is an immensely complicated task and we did it at great sacrifice by everyone in the Sheriff's Office. They have my thanks for the dedication and professionalism."
A Tribune investigation published earlier this month indicated that rampant overtime spending on immigration operations drove the agency into financial crisis and forced it to close facilities across the county.
Although MCSO officials have said that state and federal grants covered all the expenses, illegal immigration arrests actually cost county taxpayers millions of dollars.
Arpaio and his top aides denied that immigration enforcement contributed to the financial problems, instead blaming large-scale investigations, increased criminal activity, the cost of shuttling inmates and the cost of protecting Arpaio from a now-discredited assassination plot.
County payroll data, MCSO arrest reports and budget reports showed otherwise, according to the newspaper's investigation.