For years, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has made a name for himself as the tough-talking lawman from metro Phoenix who was unafraid of criticizing federal immigration enforcement, earning accolades not only from fellow conservatives but millions of dollars in donations from around the country.
Arizona law enforcement reporter Jacques Billeaud knew that much of Arpaio's campaign donations came from outside Arizona. That’s what his campaign had said. But exactly how much and from where was a mystery because the donations were catalogued in an unsearchable PDF format.
When Arpaio’s campaign announced that it had collected $9.9 million this cycle in June, Billeaud saw it as an opportunity to pierce the veil of some 6,000 PDFs using optical character recognition software. Data journalist Angeliki Kastanis scanned the PDFs and produced spreadsheets that could be analyzed.
Billeaud saw it as an opportunity to pierce the veil of some 6,000 PDFs using optical character recognition software
They found that the bulk of the donations above $50 – the ones the campaign was required to disclose – were from out of state. After Arizona, they came from California, Texas, Florida and Washington. Seventeen percent of those came from Arizona. Many of the out-of-state donors said they supported Arpaio’s focus on illegal immigration.
They also found that most of the $5.7 million spent by the sheriff so far went toward fundraising. Three-quarters of the money had gone to the political consulting firm run by his campaign manager.
Through searches of campaign records from other states, Billeaud also added critical context: The $9.9 million in donations rivaled spending by winning and losing candidates in congressional or gubernatorial races in Arizona and far exceeded the amount raised in sheriff’s races in Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.
Billeaud's story moved as Arizona taxpayers are on the hook for Arpaio's mounting legal bills for federal contempt of court proceedings stemming from his overly aggressive immigration enforcement policies.
The story was used by virtually every member in Arizona, and the editor at the Prescott Courier used the findings to write a column, even using all of the comments from those who contributed to Arpaio.
For thinking creatively to shine a light on the origins of Arpaio’s campaign contributions, Billeaud and Kastanis win this week's $300 Best of States prize.