PHOENIX – The careers of most politicians would crumble under the heavy scrutiny that the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America now faces.
But despite a mountain of legal troubles, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio remains popular with voters and has more than $3.4 million in the bank for his November re-election campaign.
The Justice Department sued the five-term sheriff on Thursday on allegations that his officers racially profile Latinos — a move that has his critics saying that voters will finally be turned off and his supporters saying the development will only make him more beloved among voters who want a tough sheriff who doesn't back down from anyone.
"He's the new Wyatt Earp," said Tom Morrissey, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party in a reference to the Arizona lawman made famous by the gun fight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone. "The guy's legendary.
"What he stands for resonates across the country," said Morrissey, also a retired chief U.S. Marshal. "Hundreds sometimes thousands of people cheer this man, give him standing ovations everywhere he speaks. That speaks volumes."
He said Arpaio's hardline stance on illegal immigration and his tough talk have driven his popularity.
"He tells it like it is. He's not polished, and a lot of times you never know what's going to come out of his mouth," Morrissey said. "The truth has a certain ring and Joe Arpaio speaks in that realm."
Even as the Justice Department brought the lawsuit down against Arpaio, saying that he abused his power and violated the Constitution, the sheriff himself held a news conference and showed no signs of backing down.
"I will fight this to the bitter end," a visibly angry Arpaio said, adding that the case will give him a chance to finally see what evidence authorities have to back up claims. "I'm very happy that we are being sued because now we can make them put up."
He said nothing is going to affect his chances of winning in November.
"They know that I'm going to get elected. It's a national issue," he said. "I'm the poster boy. The national press is picking this up again ... I can get elected on pink underwear."
Arpaio has built his reputation in part by making inmates wear pink underwear, work in chain gangs and jailing them in tents.
His profile got even bigger when pushed for a stronger role for local police to enforce immigration law, launching 20 patrols looking for illegal immigrants since January 2008.
Thursday's lawsuit comes as part of efforts to enforce a federal law that bans police from systematically violating constitutional rights.
Justice Department officials first leveled the allegations against Arpaio in December, saying a culture of disregard for basic constitutional rights prevailed at his office.
Arpaio denies wrongdoing and dismisses the case as a politically motivated attack by the Obama administration.
Arpaio's office is accused of punishing Hispanic jail inmates for speaking Spanish and launching some patrols based on complaints that never reported a crime but conveyed concerns about dark-skinned people congregating or speaking Spanish.
The lawsuit also says that Arpaio's office has virtually no policies or procedures designed to prevent or address discriminatory policing, and has no system in place to track any alleged misconduct by deputies during traffic stops, arrests or complaints.
State Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat, said the lawsuit eventually will shed light on corruption within the sheriff's office.
"It forces Arpaio to go into a courtroom and explain a lot of these accusations," Gallardo said. "You're going to see the true Sheriff Joe Arpaio."
Gallardo said that it may take a few years, but "at the end of the day, once the public sees the truth ... I think the public will give a big thumbs down to Sheriff Joe."
Antonio Bustamante, a Phoenix civil rights attorney and critic of the sheriff's immigration enforcement, said that "there's a big swath of voters that this will not sway at all," calling much of the voting public in Arpaio's jurisdiction racist and ignorant.
"People come (to Arizona) from other places and want to make it like Kansas or Nebraska," said Bustamante, who said he's a fourth-generation Arizonan whose ancestors came from Mexico. "A lot of those folks look upon us as the outsiders, and we've been here for generations. And we settled the state and were the pioneers of this state."
The most recent reliable poll asking voters how they feel about Arpaio — conducted by the nonpartisan Behavior Research Center — showed that 41 percent of the 700 people asked thought he was doing an excellent or good job. Thirty-three percent thought he was doing a poor job and 19 percent said he was doing a fair job, according to the poll, conducted in April last year.
The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
Arpaio has had no problem with fundraising, garnering more than $1.1 million in the past year. The majority of those contributions came from people living outside the state, with 2,700 donations alone coming from California, compared to 2,500 from Arizona.
Donors in Texas, Florida and Washington also made a substantial number of donations to the campaign.
Records show that Arpaio's re-election committee had $3.4 million on hand as of Dec. 31, the most recent figure available. More updated figures will not be released until June or July.
Justice officials would like Arpaio's office to seek training in constitutional policing and dealing with jail inmates with limited English skills, collect data on traffic stops and immigration enforcement, and establish a comprehensive disciplinary system that permits the public to make complaints against officers without fear of retaliation.
Separate from the Justice Department's allegations, a lawsuit that alleges that Arpaio's deputies racially profiled Latinos in immigration patrols is scheduled for a July 19 trial in federal court.
A federal grand jury also has been investigating Arpaio's office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations since at least December 2009 and is specifically examining the investigative work of the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad.
The sheriff's office also has come under fire for more than 400 sex-crimes investigations — including dozens of alleged child molestations — that hadn't been investigated adequately or weren't examined at all over a three-year period ending in 2007.
Arpaio has apologized for the botched cases, reopened 432 sex-crimes investigations and made 19 arrests.
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