Last Saturday, Former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio accepted the “Courage Under Fire” award from conservative anti-tax activist Chuck Muth’s Conservative Leadership Conference. From the start, Arpaio’s planned visit came under fire due to his record in Maricopa County, and his controversial pardon from Donald Trump last month.
Prior to Saturday, Muth wouldn’t even confirm Arpaio’s attendance, or the venue where the awards dinner would be held. On Saturday we were briefly removed from the dinner, then allowed to return after some fierce advocacy by Muth himself. This is the story of Arpaio’s visit, and how we were able to cover it.
From “America’s Toughest Sheriff” to pardoned convict
Before we discuss his visit, let’s remember who Joe Arpaio is and what he did. For 24 years, Arpaio ruled the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department with an iron fist. He became famous for requiring county jail inmates to sleep in tents, wear pink underwear, and work in chain gangs under the hot Arizona sun. Arpaio became a cause celebre in right-wing circles for his “tough on crime” platform, including his policy of arresting and detaining anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant.
Once federal investigators uncovered evidence of deputies using stun guns and “restraint chairs” on inmates, and once Arpaio himself admitted his “tent city” was a concentration camp, it wasn’t long before the “law man” found himself on the wrong side of the law. The Bush Administration actually began the criminal investigation, then the Obama-era Justice Department filed charges against Arpaio in 2012 for illegally detaining people who were merely suspected of being undocumented.
This year, the Justice Department took Arpaio to court over his refusal to abide by a 2011 court order forbidding Maricopa County from arresting and detaining people just over their immigration status. Arpaio was convicted on a misdemeanor contempt of court charge in July. One month later, President Donald Trump pardoned Arpaio.
Why was Arpaio in Las Vegas? And why couldn’t the protesters get close to him?
Arpaio was invited by Chuck Muth to headline the Saturday awards dinner at his Conservative Leadership Conference. This year, the conference was held at the Tropicana casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip. The awards dinner was originally planned to be held at the Tropicana as well, but when progressive activists learned of Arpaio’s visit and planned a protest outside the casino, Muth moved the Arpaio dinner to the Bali Hai Golf Club south of the Strip.
Once protest organizers learned that the dinner was being moved to Bali Hai, Muth and local conservative influencer George Harris moved the dinner again. This time they chose the Las Vegas Country Club, a private, gated off-Strip golf club that does not have a sidewalk on its side of the street. Since the final location was not revealed until just hours prior, protesters decided to stay at the Tropicana to demonstrate.
From invited to expelled…To re-invited
Moments after entering the event, George Harris appeared alongside a Las Vegas Metro Police Officer. Harris claimed Nevada Forward misrepresented ourselves when we checked into the dinner, even after we reminded him that Muth himself presented us with the ticket. The Metro Officer then escorted us off the premises and warned us not to return, lest we be charged with trespassing.
Shortly after leaving the premises, Chuck Muth personally asked us to return to the dinner. At the Las Vegas Country Club gate, he called George Harris and urged him to let us back in. It was during this call when Harris revealed that Las Vegas City Council Member Michele Fiore asked him to have us removed in the first place.
Once Muth explicitly explained why he invited us we were finally let back in. Inside the clubhouse, Harris apologized to us and explained that he was simply working on Fiore’s revelation that a “liberal blogger snuck into the dinner”. Shortly after Harris apologized, Fiore herself approached us to apologize. She told us the whole ordeal was a misunderstanding, as she was under the impression that no media were allowed inside.
Guess who came to dinner
As everyone was moving into the dining room, we took stock of the roughly 150 attendees. We found several prominent conservative politicians in the audience, including Nevada State Controller Ron Knecht (R), NV-03 Candidate Victoria Seaman (R), State Senator Don Gustavson (R-Reno), Assembly Member John Ellison (R-Elko), Former U.S. Senate Candidate Sue Lowden (R), and Former Assembly Member Brent Jones (R-Enterprise). Gustavson, Knecht, Fiore, and Lowden were presented with awards prior to Arpaio taking the stage.
Las Vegas City Council Member Michele Fiore accepted her award just before Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio accepted the "Courage Under Fire" award from the Conservative Leadership Conference in Las Vegas.
Posted by Nevada Forward on Saturday, September 16, 2017
At the dinner, Arpaio accepted his “Courage Under Fire” award with a speech full of red meat for the right-wing audience. He reiterated his denial that Former President Barack Obama was born in the U.S., an accusation even Donald Trump has dropped, then claimed an Italian forensics lab has proof that Obama’s birth certificate was forged. Arpaio also accused Obama of orchestrating his contempt of court conviction, saying, “Anyone who wants to say this isn’t political, they’re crazy.” The criminal investigation began under George W. Bush’s Justice Department, then Arpaio was charged under Barack Obama’s watch, and federal prosecutors took Arpaio to trial with Donald Trump in charge.
WATCH Former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio accept his award at the Conservative Leadership Conference dinner in Las Vegas.
Posted by Nevada Forward on Saturday, September 16, 2017
Arpaio endorsed Trump… again
Arpaio claimed politics had nothing to do with Trump pardoning him, even as Arpaio was providing political cover for Trump. Arpaio even offered a ringing endorsement for Trump’s reelection in 2020. “It took me 85 years to finally find out I had a hero, and that was the President today.”
Regardless of the facts behind Arpaio’s trial and conviction, he continues to stand with Trump. After Arpaio recalled how he was among the first Republican elected leaders to endorse Trump in July 2015, he urged the audience to remain loyal to Trump. “Get with him. He is our President.”
Arpaio tried to smooth over the simmering anger on the right over Trump entering into bipartisan negotiations on the DREAM Act. “He took a little bit of heat for going to a couple of Democrats,” Arpaio acknowledged, before he reassured the crowd that Trump will give them what they want. “He’s a good dealmaker.”
Finding Joe Arpaio, not once, but twice
Just before everyone left for the dinner, Arpaio reluctantly spoke with us for a few minutes. Arpaio essentially provided a preview of his acceptance speech, from his doubling down on birtherism to his steadfast loyalty to Trump. We also asked about the long trail of civil rights violations during Arpaio’s time as Maricopa County Sheriff, the darker side of Arpaio’s record that Fiore joked about with her “pink boxers” remark at the dinner.
Needless to say, neither of us could have imagined we’d be reunited for dinner just hours later. That was thanks to Chuck Muth’s insistence that we attend. Regardless of what one thinks of Arpaio or this dinner, Muth didn’t have to invite us or any other media outlet to cover it.
Yet cover it, we did. Arpaio’s visit was initially kept under tight wraps. But in a fitting twist of fate, his visit was ultimately documented for everyone to see.