By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - A local sheriff resigned as a co-chair of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's campaign in Arizona on Saturday after he was accused of threatening a former male lover with deportation to Mexico if he talked about their relationship.
In an embarrassing incident for Romney's struggling campaign, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu denied that he or his lawyer made the deportation threat but stepped down from helping the former Massachusetts governor in the border state.
Babeu acknowledged at a press conference on Saturday that he is gay and that he had a personal relationship with the man making the allegations, whom he identified only as "Jose."
"Sheriff Babeu has stepped down from his volunteer position with the campaign so he can focus on the allegations against him. We support his decision," the Romney campaign said in a statement.
The Phoenix New Times alternative newspaper reported on Friday that Babeu's lawyer had asked Jose to sign a legal agreement that would require him to keep quiet about his involvement with the sheriff. According to the newspaper, the lawyer also warned Jose that any talk about their relationship could imperil his immigration status.
"All of these allegations that were in one of these newspapers were absolutely false, except for the issue that referred to me as being gay, and that is the truth. I am gay," Babeu said at the news conference.
Babeu first came to statewide prominence in 2010 when he appeared in a campaign ad for U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee two years earlier, calling for tough immigration measures.
The sheriff, who is a tough law-and-order advocate, was considered a rising star in state Republican politics and a strong candidate to win the Republican nomination for a congressional seat in Arizona this year.
Babeu is a strong critic of the handling of immigration issues by the administration of President Barack Obama.
(Additional Reporting by Sam Youngman; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Steve Gorman)