PHOENIX — The self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America took to the witness stand on Tuesday, explaining in a subdued voice that he had very little to do with failed corruption investigations led by his ally.
The bluster that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has long been known for was nowhere on display at the disciplinary hearing for former county attorney Andrew Thomas.
"I have 4,000 employees. I delegate," Arpaio said, when asked if he had read investigative reports in some of the corruption cases.
Lawyers pressing the discipline case said officials, judges and attorneys who crossed Arpaio and Thomas in political disputes were often targeted for investigations and, in some cases, were criminally charged.
Arpaio and Thomas contend they were trying to root out corruption in county government, while county officials say the investigations were baseless.
The sheriff's testimony comes at a time when a federal grand jury is investigating abuse-of-power allegations against him and the U.S. Justice Department is conducting a civil rights probe of his immigration patrols.
As the controversy swirls around Arpaio, he has in recent weeks played host to a stream of Republican presidential hopefuls who want his endorsement.
Arpaio wouldn't face any punishment if Thomas is found to have violated ethics rules, but the hearing could provide the first official comment from the state's legal establishment on whether the investigations were valid.
Tuesday's testimony was the first time that Arpaio has been called into court to explain his role in the probes, though he has testified about the investigations in earlier depositions.
A tired-looking Arpaio showed no emotion and said he had the flu.
Arpaio said he handed control of criminal cases against three public officials over to his top assistant. Arpaio says he recalled few details about the failed investigations. The two officials and a judge said the cases were trumped up.
County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox was accused of voting on contracts involving a group that had given her loans and never filing conflict-of-interest statements. Colleague Don Stapley was accused of getting mortgage loans under fraudulent pretenses.
And Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe was charged with hindering prosecution, obstruction of justice and bribery.
All three cases were dismissed after a judge ruled that Thomas prosecuted one of the three officials for political gain and had a conflict of interest in pressing the case.
If an ethics panel finds that Thomas violated professional rules of conduct, he could face a wide range of punishments, including an informal reprimand, censure, suspension or disbarment.
Last week, David Hendershott, Arpaio's former No. 2 official, testified that some of the allegations brought against the judge weren't crimes, though he believed that other allegations against Donahoe were criminal violations.
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