The self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America" and his office are the subject of a federal investigation focused on allegations that they blatantly abused their power, including trying to intimidate county workers by showing up at their homes at nights to ask them about budget items, a county official said.
A grand jury is apparently investigating the allegations leveled by county officials against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose aggressive anti-immigration tactics have made him a nationally known law enforcement figure in recent years.
Federal investigators are apparently looking into Arpaio's actions stemming from his anger over budget cuts handed down by county officials. The budget cuts were part of a long-running feud between Arpaio and county leaders.
In one instance, Arpaio is accused of investigating a $340 million project for a new courts building in downtown Phoenix because he thought that the money should instead be spent on plugging holes in his office's budget. In other cases, he sent deputies to workers' homes on nights and weekends.
"Their way of showing their displeasure was to investigate, using the criminal justice process on people who were simply doing their jobs," said County Manager David Smith. He and Deputy County Manager Sandi Wilson have been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury on Wednesday.
Arpaio said Friday that he isn't aware of a federal grand jury investigating him and his office. "I play by the rules, so I am not going to talk about a grand jury," Arpaio said. "But I will tell you this: I will continue to do my investigations and my job."
Arpaio has clashed with county officials over budget cuts that totaled $17 million this year, along with control over a county computer system that provides access to law-enforcement databases, and access to e-mail records of dozens of county workers.
The feud between Arpaio and county officials appears to have escalated recently since Arpaio stepped up his investigations of county officials. Two county supervisors and one county judge have been criminally charged in investigations by Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas.
Nearly two weeks after Arpaio and Thomas announced a criminal case against a judge on charges of hindering prosecution, obstruction of justice and bribery, hundreds of lawyers gathered in front of the county courthouse in downtown Phoenix to protest.
The sheriff said that no one in a position of authority has told him that he is the subject of a grand jury investigation, but evidence is growing that he is facing intense scrutiny from the federal government.
County officials provided The Associated Press with subpoenas that order Smith and Wilson to appear before the grand jury. The subpoenas don't make any references Arpaio or his office or the subject of the grand jury's examination.
U.S. Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar and Sandy Raynor, a spokeswoman for the U.S attorney's office in Phoenix, say they couldn't confirm or deny any grand jury investigations. FBI spokesman Manuel Johnson declined to comment on whether the agency was investigating Arpaio and his office.
Smith said federal prosecutors didn't specify the targets of the investigation, but he believes Arpaio is obviously at the center of the investigation, because he runs the sheriff's office. The county manager also said federal prosecutors didn't ask him about Arpaio's immigration efforts.
Smith said he spoke with prosecutors about sheriff's deputies raiding a Maricopa County office in August to seize control of a county computer system that provides access to law enforcement databases.
"Just intimidating the employees working there and trying to show the board that they could take over a resource that wasn't theirs," Smith said, noting that this raid and the visits to employees' homes have had a discouraging effect on some workers.
Arpaio is widely known for tough jail policies, making inmates wear pink underwear and take part in old-style chain gangs in striped uniforms and serving them green bologna sandwiches.
His crime and immigration sweeps — some in heavily Hispanic areas of Phoenix — have drawn criticism that his deputies were racially profiling people. Arpaio maintains people pulled over in the sweeps were approached because deputies had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes.
The U.S. Justice Department is also investigating Arpaio's office over allegations of discrimination and unconstitutional searches and seizures — a probe that the sheriff believes was prompted by his immigration efforts.
Last year, Arpaio was stripped of some of his special authority to make federal immigration arrests. He has continued to enforce state laws banning immigrant smuggling and prohibiting businesses from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
Still, Arpaio remains hugely popular. He was easily elected to a fifth term in 2008.
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