Scandals plague controversial Arizona sheriff

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Maricopa County Sheriff Officer Joe Arpaio

This week, the self-professed "toughest sheriff in America" announced that three of his Maricopa County employees were arrested for allegedly helping a Mexican drug cartel smuggle people and drugs. But the list of Joe Arpaio's problems doesn't stop there.

The one thing you need to know about Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is that he craves publicity. He's regularly on local TV news, cable talk shows, even international programs. But the 78-year old lawman now finds himself dealing with the kind of publicity no elected official wants.

This week, Arpaio held a press conference to announce that two of his detention officers and a deputy were arrested for allegedly helping a Mexican drug cartel smuggle people and narcotics.

"That a deputy sheriff would provide information and associate with these drug and human traffickers is despicable," he said.

Arpaio said the deputy drove smuggled immigrants to California and even had two suspected illegal immigrants at his home. He said one of the two female detention officers was romantically involved with the leader of the smuggling ring and is eight months pregnant with his child.

Playing The Media

In light of the revelations, Arpaio vowed to clean up shop.

"So if there's any problems in this office, I'm going to take action, I don't care who they are — top to bottom," he said.

But the list of problems is getting longer. A local police department claims sheriff's deputies failed to fully investigate 400 sex crimes. Arpaio's chief deputy quit last month rather than be fired after an investigation found abuses of power and inappropriate activities. A financial audit discovered that the sheriff misspent $100 million to fund immigration sweeps and investigations into people who questioned his policies.

Arpaio was elected sheriff of Maricopa County in 1992 after a 30-year career in the Drug Enforcement Administration. He runs Arizona's largest jail system, where he first gained attention for banning girlie magazines, serving inmates bologna sandwiches and forcing them to wear pink underwear.

"He knew how to play the media," says Paul Charlton, a former U.S. attorney for Arizona. "He knew what policies that he could implement would draw media attention — not only in the state, I don't think in the country, but internationally. But he was at the same time, an individual — when I was in the U.S. attorney's office — who understood what it meant to be a good law enforcement officer."

Losing Focus

Charlton says that changed in late 2006 after a new conservative county prosecutor was elected and Arpaio's focus shifted to illegal immigration.

"I think Joe Arpaio lost his perspective. He lost his way and began to become more concerned with pursuing his political enemies than he did with doing what's right, than with doing justice," he says.

Even a member of Arpaio's administration concedes the sheriff may have lost his focus. At a press conference this week, Chief Deputy Jack MacIntyre told reporters the sheriff might have enjoyed spending too much time with the media and not enough overseeing his agency.

"There are a lot of human frailties and a lot of reasons for it. Certainly, I don't think Joe Arpaio has ever claimed to be perfect," he said.

Arpaio has admitted as much and says he'll bring in outside consultants to help. But it may be too late. The Department of Justice is investigating Arpaio's office for its treatment of inmates and for alleged racial profiling during immigration sweeps. And the FBI and local U.S. attorney's office is looking into whether Arpaio abused his power by targeting elected officials and judges who publicly disagreed with his policies.

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