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Revelation That Sheriff Arpaio Hired Informant For CIA Investigation Raises New Legal Questions

During Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s contempt of court hearing last week, U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow surprised the sheriff by questioning him about a Phoenix New Times article from last year.

The article said the sheriff’s office hired a Seattle computer consultant named Dennis Montgomery to investigate supposed collusion between Snow — who had ruled against the sheriff in a racial profiling case — and the U.S. Department of Justice.

On the stand, Arpaio denied Snow was the target. But he and his chief deputy both confirmed in their testimony that Montgomery was hired by the sheriff’s office.

The investigation appears to have been very unorthodox and the details are still murky. The sheriff and his chief deputy’s testimony seemed to describe it as an attempt to expose alleged bank fraud, computer tampering and surveillance by the Central Intelligence Agency and DOJ.

The revelations of last week are not the first time Montgomery’s name has been thrust into the spotlight. In late 2009, investigative journalist Aram Roston wrote an article in Playboy saying Montgomery had apparently conned the U.S. government with claims he could predict terrorism attacks by analyzing codes hidden in Al Jazeera broadcasts. 

NPR’s Guy Raz interviewed Roston on All Things Considered in December 2009.

“For several months starting in the fall of 2003, Montgomery's analysis led directly to national code orange security alerts and cancelled flights,” Raz said in his introduction. “The only problem: he was making it all up. And you and me, the taxpayers, we paid for it.”

Montgomery’s companies reportedly earned millions of dollars in CIA and military contracts.

His technology was publicly discredited again in a 2011 New York Times article and later in a book by reporter James Risen. 

Montgomery has denied the allegations that his software doesn’t work and has even sued Risen for libel

All the controversy didn’t stop the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office from hiring him as a confidential informant.

While under oath last Friday at the contempt hearing, Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan told Snow that Montgomery,“had information that the CIA hacked into individual bank accounts, I think there were approximately 50,000 of them, Maricopa County residents. He had their names, their bank account numbers, and their dollar amounts.”

At a later point, Sheridan explained further:

“When [Montgomery] worked for the CIA, he pulled data from American citizens for the CIA. I mean, we heard a lot about this a few years ago; it was very much in the media. And he said he was one of the individuals that was tasked with doing that, and he knew that was incorrect, it was wrong, and so he made backup copies that he took and he kept. And he was mining that data to find these email breaches, to find the bank information that he originally came to us with.”

Sheridan testified Montgomery also had shown the sheriff’s office evidence of DOJ wiretaps of Arpaio and his lawyers, and said the DOJ had obtained Snow’s emails.

Sheridan said the sheriff’s office had informed the Arizona Attorney General’s office of the investigation, and the end goal was to ultimately give the information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Montgomery worked on computers based at his residence. Sheridan said the sheriff’s office sent a detective, a sergeant, and a volunteer posse member to Seattle multiple times because that made Montgomery work harder.

He said the sheriff’s office used RICO funds, which are seized from criminals, to fund the investigation.

William Banks directs the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse Law School. He says this situation is unusual.

“There are always kooks that are claiming that they work for CIA and they have stuff,” Banks said. “But I haven’t heard of any where they are in cahoots with local officials. That is a new twist.”

Sheridan told Snow the sheriff’s office had begun to doubt Montgomery’s credibility and realized they were being strung along. 

But if the testimony Sheridan gave is accurate, and Montgomery actually did have in his possession CIA data that he had copied, that would raise a host of legal questions.

“That is basically something like what Edward Snowden or Bradley/Chelsea Manning did which is to take confidential government information and pass it on to others,” said Tung Yin, a law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School with expertise in national security law.

“Depending on what is actually in the alleged information that was taken from the CIA, if it was classified, that could raise some potential espionage type of charges,” Yin said.

Banks said Sheridan’s description of the kind of CIA data Montgomery supposedly had did not sound plausible given Banks’ understanding of CIA domestic programs.

But assuming Montgomery did have data from the CIA?

“If it came from the CIA it would be classified,” Banks said. He said taking that classified information would be a serious crime.

In Montgomery's libel suit against Risen he claims he obtained “a top secret clearance in less than a year in 2003,” which “allowed him to courier top-secret material worldwide.”

Theoretically, the sheriff’s office could be culpable if officials sought information they knew was classified, Banks said.

At the hearing last week, Snow instructed the sheriff to immediately hand over documents related to this investigation so it could be reviewed by the independent monitor the judge has put in place to oversee the sheriff’s compliance with court orders.

In court filings on Tuesday, the sheriff’s lawyer, Michele Iafrate, requested more time to review the documents. Iafrate also objected to the judge questioning Arpaio about the Montgomery investigation without warning the sheriff.

“Defendant Arpaio objects to the unorthodox manner that violated Defendant Arpaio’s due process rights by questioning Defendant Arpaio on areas on which he did not receive prior notice,” the filing reads.

Attorneys for Arpaio and Sheridan did not respond to a request to comment for this story. The attorney representing Montgomery in his libel suit declined to comment as well.

Jude Joffe-Block was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2017.