February 28th, 2014
10:04 AM ET

At Roast for Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Did Arizona Legislator Go Too Far?

A lawmaker's remarks at a roast for Sheriff Joe Arpaio made audience members chuckle and applaud. But critics of the controversial Arizona sheriff say they aren't laughing.

Comments made by state Rep. John Kavanagh, they say, were racist jokes that used Latinos as the punchline.

The tumult comes after the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that has criticized Arpaio in the past, posted audio recordings from the recent roast on its website.

"Sheriff Joe is the kind of guy that you gotta love, as long as you have papers," Kavanagh quips in the recording.

"Going out with Joe is always an adventure," he continues, "because usually when we walk into a restaurant, most of the waitstaff and cooks dive out the back window, and when they don't, I never know what the hell's in my food."

It's comments like that, the law center claims, that show why conservatives have a hard time connecting with Latinos. "There is a fundamental lack of respect," the center said.

Kavanagh declined CNN's interview request. But in a written statement, he called the Southern Poverty Law Center's post a personal attack.

"The jokes I made at the Sheriff Joe Arpaio Roast, at his invitation, were satirical comedy. The jokes were not directed at minority group members but at the target of the roast - Sheriff Arpaio. The jokes were jabs against the sheriff based upon allegations of his department's engaging in racial profiling," Kavanagh said.

"The Southern Poverty Law Center edited out selected portions of a much longer roast on many topics not related to racial profiling. The humor was typical of roasts and had I made the same jokes against Sheriff Arpaio at their annual dinner, I suspect that they would have been laughing as much as this audience laughed. Likewise, had these jokes been made on a TV comedy or variety show, there would also be no controversy."

Kavanagh, a Republican, was a major supporter of Arizona's just-vetoed religious freedom bill and also supported its 2010 law cracking down on illegal immigration.

The clip posted online included about six minutes excerpted from remarks that lasted around 20 minutes at the roast. In his roast, Kavanagh also joked about Arpaio's age and other topics, including singer Justin Bieber's legal problems.

Arpaio, who calls himself America's toughest sheriff, told CNN there's no basis for allegations that Kavanagh is racist.

"It was a roast. John Kavanagh's my friend. I support him. He's not a racist. He's very funny," Arpaio said. "So, he made these comments, I can't speak whether he went too far."

The sheriff accused people criticizing the roast of having a double standard.

"Everybody's talking about him. What about all the activists and the civil rights (groups) that called me Nazi and Hitler? For four years, they've been doing that, on street corners and everywhere else," he said. "Why isn't there an uproar about going after me, calling me every name in the book? Why are they worried about just some roast?"

Last year, a federal court in Phoenix ruled that Arpaio's handling of people of Latino descent was not tough enforcement of immigration laws but instead amounted to racial and ethnic profiling. The judge later ordered a federal monitor to keep tabs on Arpaio's office and make sure officers weren't racially profiling anymore.

The monitor was also a subject of jokes during Kavanagh's roast.

"It's OK. I'm not the federal monitor," he said. "How many Hispanics did you pull over on the way over here, Arpaio, huh?"

Arpaio's tough, headline-grabbing punishments have earned him diehard supporters and fiery opponents.

He's issued pink underwear to the men detained in the county's jails and said he is saving taxpayers money by removing salt and pepper from prison meals.

In January, Arpaio said inmates who allegedly defaced American flags placed in their jail cells would be punished with a diet of bread and water.

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