PHOENIX (Reuters) - Two tough-on-immigration Arizona sheriffs with national profiles in the Republican Party were cleared of criminal wrongdoing on Friday in unrelated probes, though one remains accused of racial profiling and other abuses in a pair of federal lawsuits.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona said it had closed its criminal investigation of alleged financial misconduct by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, self-described as “America’s toughest sheriff”, and was declining to bring charges.
But a separate U.S. Justice Department investigation and lawsuit relating to alleged civil rights abuses by Arpaio’s office, including accusations of widespread racial profiling in his immigration enforcement, is continuing, federal prosecutors said.
And a federal judge is expected to rule soon in a similar suit brought against Arpaio, this one a class-action case by five Hispanic citizens who claimed they were stopped by the sheriff’s deputies because of their ethnicity.
Earlier on Friday, another Arizona lawman with national ties to the Republican Party and a reputation for cracking down on illegal border crossings, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, was cleared of criminal charges by the state attorney general’s office.
Babeu resigned as co-chair of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s state campaign after allegations he threatened a male lover with deportation but asked for the state investigation of his conduct to clear his name.
Babeu acknowledged at the time he was gay and had a personal relationship with his accuser, Jose Orozco, who was reported to be from Mexico, but denied that he had made any threat to deport him.
“The Attorney General’s Office will not file charges against either Babeu or Orozco,” Solicitor General Dave Cole said in a statement.
“The investigation determined that Babeu did not commit any criminal violations and further concluded that, although Orozco conducted himself in a manner that may constitute a violation of the law, there was no reasonable likelihood of conviction or anything more than a misdemeanor charge,” Cole added.
Babeu said in a statement that “the truth had won out in the end”, and that he had been fully exonerated.
The decision on the Arpaio case marked the end of an investigation that began in November 2010 at the behest of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to examine alleged financial improprieties by the county sheriff and his deputies.
A criminal inquiry into several of those matters was concluded last summer with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona declining to initiate charges.
Maricopa County authorities were informed on Friday that federal prosecutors had likewise declined to bring charges in connection with two remaining allegations against the sheriff’s office - that it had misused county credit cards and misspent jail-enhancement excise taxes.
In addition, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute two former officials of the county attorney’s office who were accused of wrongfully prosecuting a local judge.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Birmingham Scheel said in a statement that her office “is closing its investigation into allegations of criminal conduct by current and former members of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office”.
In a four-page letter to the county attorney elaborating on her decision, Scheel wrote: “After careful review, we do not believe the allegations presented to us are prosecutable as crimes.”
Arpaio said he learned the case was dropped on his return to Arizona from the Republican National Convention in Florida.
“I said all along I would be cleared in this case,” Arpaio, looking tired, told reporters gathered at his office in downtown Phoenix late Friday. “If I did something wrong, there would be indictments floating around all over the place.”
He added: “My people are not crooks. They are trying to do their job.”
Arpaio, 80, who is seeking re-election to a sixth term as sheriff in November, has ignited controversy over his aggressive enforcement of immigration laws and his politically charged, and fruitless, pursuit of evidence questioning the validity of President Barack Obama’s U.S. birth certificate.
He has been under a federal investigation since 2008 over allegations that he and his deputies engaged in an extensive pattern of civil rights abuses. That probe led the Justice Department to file a lawsuit in May accusing the sheriff and his office of racial profiling and unlawful arrests of Latinos in a bid to crack down on illegal immigration.
The civil suit also accused Arpaio’s office of routinely violating the constitutional free-speech rights of political opponents by retaliating against them through unsubstantiated legal action, including unlawful arrests.
A separate lawsuit accusing Arpaio and his deputies of racial profiling went to trial earlier this summer, with the sheriff denying under oath that his office ever arrested people “because of the color of their skin”.
Writing by Steve Gorman; editing by Peter Cooney, Mohammad Zargham and Pravin Char