PHOENIX - Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio dropped a bombshell in court Thursday when he said his former lawyer had hired a private investigator to look into the wife of the federal judge presiding over a contempt of court case against Arpaio, who bills himself as "America's toughest sheriff."
The hearing took the strange turn after Arpaio had finished his testimony and Judge Murray Snow began asking him questions, including whether the sheriff was investigating the judge's family.
Arpaio said he believed his former lawyer, Tim Casey, had hired a private investigator to look into Snow's wife. The investigation stemmed from a purported comment the judge's wife made about her husband not wanting Arpaio to get re-elected in 2012.
Casey declined comment, citing attorney-client privilege, when The Associated Press reached him after the development in court.
Snow has been overseeing a sprawling racial-profiling lawsuit winding its way through the courts for several years. He determined in 2013 that Arpaio's office systematically racially profiled Latinos during traffic stops, then called this week's contempt-of-court hearing after Arpaio defied his orders to stop carrying out immigration patrols.
Arpaio's Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has a 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 Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against the sheriff to look into abuse-of-power allegations over the political feuds.
Arpaio came under sharp questioning earlier in the day over his TV interviews, press releases and campaign fundraising, as lawyers sought to use Arpaio's own words against him in proving that he willfully defied a judge's orders to stop carrying out his signature immigration patrols.
The normally brash Maricopa County sheriff gave soft-spoken and terse answers in his second day on the witness stand in the contempt-of-court hearing that could lead to fines, increased oversight of his agency and a possible criminal contempt hearing. He said "I don't recall" on several occasions.
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.
Arpaio apologized again for disregarding a 2011 order to stop the immigration patrols. The order was issued after a judge found the agency racial profiled Latinos. Arpaio has acknowledged the violation, which lasted 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."
Asked whether defying the order meant he violated his oath of office, Arpaio said, "I did not intend to violate my oath."
His testimony came five years to the date after the signing of Arizona's landmark immigration law known as SB 1070. Protesters are planning to march from the Arizona capitol to Arpaio's jail on Thursday to mark the anniversary and draw attention to immigration policies.
Arizona lawmakers passed the legislation amid growing frustration over illegal immigration. Arpaio became a leading figure in the national debate as his agency took an aggressive stance in arresting and detaining immigrants in the country illegally.
SB 1070 was largely gutted through a series of legal challenges, and Arpaio's practices were reined in by the courts.
His defiance of the judge's orders, however, landed him in court. The contempt hearing marked the boldest attempt to hold the sheriff personally responsible for his actions.