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Wow, it’s nice when an asshole in power has their machinations exposed and foiled.
The Phoenix New Times has published a number of critical articles about their local sheriff, Joe Arpaio, since he took office in 1992. He reinstituted chain gangs. His prisons were so bad that they were investigated by Amnesty International. And people kept dying in Arpaio’s custody. The PNT helped keep the focus on Arpaio, and he did not like the scrutiny (or maybe he did; some authority figures like to pretend that they’re the ones being persecuted).
The PNT really struck a nerve in 2004, an election year, when they pointed out that Arpaio had over $1 million in hidden real estate investments. How was that possible on a sheriff’s salary? Seemed… fishy.
But this story had crossed a line. In posting the article on their website, the PNT violated an obscure state law which made it illegal to post the address of a law enforcement official on the internet. And Arpaio leaped at the chance to take on his tormentors.
Arpaio got his friends in the County Attorney’s office to convene a grand jury investigation and send three grand jury subpoenas to the PNT office. The subpoenas essentially asked for “every note, tape, and record from every story written about Sheriff Arpaio by every reporter over a period of years.” They also asked for highly detailed information about people who visited the PNT’s website.
Let me repeat that last part. Because his home address was posted on a website, the sheriff was asking a news outlet for:
Any and all documents containing a compilation of aggregate information about the Phoenix New Times website created or prepared from January 1, 2004 to the present, including but not limited to:
A. which pages visitors access or visit on the Phoneix New Times website…
C. information obtained from “cookies”, including but not limited to, authentication, tracking, and maintaining information about users (site preferences, contents of electronic shopping carts, etc.);
D. the IP address of anyone that accessed the Phoneix New Times website from January 1, 2004 to the present;
E. the domain name of anyone that has accessed the Phoneix New Times website from January 1, 2004 to the present;
F. the website a user visited prior to coming to the Phoneix New Times website…
Why did they request that information? How could it even remotely be deemed relevant? I have no idea.
And, of course, the content of these subpoenas were secret; it was illegal for the recipients to tell anyone what they said.
The PNT received these subpoenas in late August, tried to fight them in court, and then found evidence that the county’s special prosecutor was trying to influence the judge behind the scenes. Figuring that they didn’t have much chance in a bullshit, clandestine, RIGGED grand jury trial, the publishers decided to go public and announce to their readers what was going down. Two of the publishers were then arrested for breaking their legally-mandated silence.
Due to the publicity and outrage, the two were released the next day, all the charges were dropped, the County Attorney had to hold a press conference to announce how badly they’d fucked up, and the special prosecutor was fired. Given the furor, I do expect some fallout to land on Mr. Sheriff, but so far he is only stroking his cat and growling “I’ll get you next time, Gadget, next time.”
The moral of the story is, sometimes being a corrupt, power-hungry prick can backfire.