It’s always helpful in the frenzy of discovery when nearing a solution to a complicated puzzle, to take a step back for a reality check. Case in point is the identification of what Sheriff Joe and his Posse have been incessantly promising Universe-shattering results about. Recent revelations in the Phoenix New Times that Arpaio has paid big bucks to a notorious scam artist for information about US Federal District Judge G. Murray Snow and US Attorney General Eric holder provide an emotionally satisfying answer: Arpaio and his Posse are credulous fools. In this moment of excitement where all of the pieces seem to line up it’s worth considering whether we are fooling ourselves and to ask a few questions:
- Does any part of the story require unusual complexity or implausibility?
- Has confirmation bias caused contrary evidence to be pushed aside?
- Are the sources credible?
- Is there a plausible alternative narrative?
I can’t answer these questions for you, as they involve trust and value judgments, but I will attempt to answer them for myself.
I think the story is plausible because the actors in the alleged narrative do things that they have done in the past. Sheriff Joe has gone after political enemies with bogus investigations, and he has bought into conspiracy theories. Dennis Montgomery has scammed people and used their technological ignorance to his advantage. He has fabricated evidence before in the form of altered emails, according to expert court testimony. There are plausible mechanisms for the two to connect up because Sheriff Joe’s Obama investigation is widely reported in the national press. Also another Cold Case Posse source, Doug Vogt, lives close to Montgomery. The nearest thing to implausibility in the story is the amount of money, $200,000, allegedly spent by the Sheriff’s Office on Montgomery’s information. That’s a lot of money and it allegedly come from a secret fund—one should always be wary of secret boxes where the best evidence is. Still, given the power of Arpaio, I can sort of buy the $200,000. Montgomery got $20 million from the US government for fake information.
One contrary item is that Cold Case Posse insider Brian Reilly had never heard of Dennis Montgomery. However, the Universe-shattering investigation allegedly involving Montgomery didn’t start until after Reilly had left the Posse. Nothing else comes to mind.
I tend to trust the Phoenix New Times. What is my source? Most of what I know about the New Times comes from the New Times. That’s problematic. The bulk of their information comes from an anonymous source. They portray themselves as journalists with integrity battling the evil empire of Joe Arpaio. In their favor, they won a $3.5 million settlement against the Sheriff’s Office. Indeed the County has lost $55 million in payouts for false arrest and prosecution charges against the Sheriff’s Office and the Prosecutor. The story’s author, Stephen Lemons has won a string of journalism awards. I do not have wide experience with stories in the New Times and whether they are always reliable. There is one thing strongly in favor of the credibility of the story which is the account of both Arpaio and Montgomery refusing to deny their relationship, which it would have been trivially easy to do so. I would say that if the story is baseless, the New Times runs the risk of getting sued (or arrested?).
There are any number of alternate scenarios:
- The New Times made it all up out of spite.
- The New Times’ informant made it all up out of spite.
- Montgomery really has used his technical skills to uncover damning evidence against Eric Holder and Judge Snow, and is providing it to Arpaio. Indictments to follow.
None of those seems likely, with #2 the only one remotely plausible.
I invite readers to suggest things I overlooked, or to weigh in with their own evaluations, and other questions that need to be asked.