PHOENIX (AP) — In a bombshell revelation, Sheriff Joe Arpaio acknowledged Thursday that his office was behind a secret investigation into the wife of the judge presiding over a racial-profiling lawsuit against the brash Arizona lawman known for his anti-immigration patrols.
A contempt-of-court hearing in the case took the strange turn after the sheriff finished his testimony and Judge Murray Snow began asking him questions, including whether Arpaio was investigating him and his family.
"Are you aware that I've been investigated by anyone?" the judge asked.
Arpaio said he believed his former lawyer, Tim Casey, had hired a private investigator to investigate Snow's wife after she purportedly made a comment that about the judge not wanting the sheriff to get re-elected in 2012.
"We weren't investigating you," Arpaio told the judge. "We were investigating some comments that came to our attention."
The Maricopa County sheriff gave soft-spoken and terse answers in his second day on the witness stand in the hearing that could lead to fines, increased oversight of his agency and a possible criminal contempt hearing. His answer to several questions was, "I don't recall."
His demeanor lacked the bravado he normally brings to news conferences and TV interviews.
Snow is an appointee of President George W. Bush who has been overseeing the sprawling racial profiling case against Arpaio that's been winding its way through the courts.
The judge determined in 2013 that Arpaio's office systematically racially profiled Latinos during traffic stops and then convened the contempt-of-court hearing this week after Arpaio defied his orders to stop carrying out immigration patrols.
The case has battered Arpaio's legacy. He was once a hero to conservatives across the country for taking on immigration but has seen his political strength weaken with a series of negative court rulings and lawsuits.
His testimony came five years to the day after the signing of Arizona's landmark immigration law known as SB 1070. About 200 protesters marched Thursday to the federal courthouse where Arpaio testified to mark the anniversary and draw attention to immigration policies.
It was not immediately clear what consequences Arpaio could face over the private investigator. Federal law prohibits anyone from trying to attempt to intimidate or inappropriately influence a federal judge.
Paul Charlton, the former top federal prosecutor for Arizona and an Arpaio critic, said a probe needs to be conducted to determine if the investigation of the judge's wife broke the law.
"What we heard today is deserving of scrutiny by federal law enforcement because it is inappropriate — if not unlawful — to investigate a sitting district court judge," said Charlton, who isn't involved in the contempt case.
Casey declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege, when The Associated Press reached him after the development in court.
Arpaio's office has a long history of investigating his opponents. Two elected county supervisors and a judge were among those investigated and charged with crimes in the past decade after feuding with the sheriff's office.
The targets of the investigations said the allegations against them were trumped up. The failed investigations led to seven-figure settlements paid by the county to some targets of the investigations.
A county official have said sheriff's investigators went to the homes of 70 county and court staffers on nights and weekends in 2009 in an attempt to intimidate them.
Then-County Manager David Smith told The Associated Press in 2010 that Arpaio's message was clear: "We know where you live. We know where to find you. Do something we don't like, and you're at risk."
A federal grand jury conducted a nearly three-year investigation of Arpaio's office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations and specifically examined the investigative work of the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad that investigated the public officials. The investigation was closed in 2012 without any charges being filed.
A pending civil rights lawsuit by the U.S. Justice Department alleges the sheriff's office has retaliated against Arpaio's critics.
In court Thursday, the self-proclaimed "America's Toughest Sheriff" came under sharp questioning while testifying about his TV interviews, press releases and campaign fundraising.
Lawyers sought to use his own words against him in proving that he willfully defied a judge's orders to stop carrying out his signature immigration patrols.
A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union played recordings of TV interviews, including a 2012 segment on Fox News with host Neil Cavuto in which the sheriff called out the Obama administration over its immigration policies and said he would keep arresting immigrants who were in the country illegally.
Cavuto asked him if he's afraid of being "backed into a legal corner" and that he could land in jail over his immigration policies.
"No, I'm in a political quandary," Arpaio said. "This is all politics."
Plaintiff lawyer Stan Young responded to the clip by asking: "You thought violating the law and possibly going to jail was just for politics?"
Arpaio apologized again for disregarding an order issued in 2011 to stop the immigration patrols while Snow continued to examine if the tactic involved racial profiling. Arpaio has acknowledged ignoring the order for 18 months.
"I have a deep respect for the courts," Arpaio said. "It really hurts me after 55 years to be in this position. I want to apologize to the judge. I should have known more about these court orders that slipped through the cracks."