Editor's note: Watch Anderson Cooper 360° Monday beginning at 10 pm ET to learn more about the allegations against Arpaio.
(CNN) – Make no mistake about it: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is tough on crime.
The popular lawman has built a reputation for taking a strong-handed approach to those who break the law in his county. Whether it’s a DUI, a violent crime or being an undocumented immigrant: commit a crime and get caught in Maricopa and you may find yourself wearing pink underwear and a black-and-white striped jail uniform while a part of a chain gang cleaning up county streets and sleeping in a hot, sweltering tent.
The sheriff scoffs at those who challenge his tactics, holding countless news conferences and media events intended to show the world the consequences of being a criminal in his part of Arizona. His approach has worked; Arpaio has maintained a high approval rating and has never seriously been challenged in any election.
But those CNN talked with say look closer and you’ll find that Arpaio uses the same force and tactics against criminals and against those he considers a political threat - including judges, politicians who challenge his views and even people like Don Stapley, who sits on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, the local governmental body that approves Arpaio’s annual budget.
“Anyone who ruled against him, anyone who disagreed with anything he had to say, became a criminal target and criminally investigated,” Stapley said.
Stapley says a few years ago he questioned expenditures by the sheriff’s office including trips to a resort in Honduras by sheriff’s deputies. The next thing he knew, Stapley says, he was under a criminal investigation and arrested by sheriff’s deputies for failure to properly disclose property and finances on campaign finance records. All charges against Stapley were dismissed.
Maricopa County Budget Director Sandy Wilson says she asked for all county agencies to trim their budgets when suddenly she too was the target of a criminal investigation by Arpaio’s office.
“Who would have ever believed that the way about us - to stop us from doing our jobs would have been to go against individuals within my office, myself included, the county manager, criminally,” said Wilson whose investigation never made it past the grand jury stage for lack of evidence of any crime.
Arpaio’s office says all the investigations were legitimate, that investigators had probable cause and a duty to investigate; others call it intimidation and an abuse of power.
When asked by CNN whether Arpaio had abused his power by sending out his subordinates to investigate political opponents, Interim Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan said absolutely not.
“I’ve been here for 32 years,” said Sheridan speaking on behalf of Arpaio who refused CNN’s request to be interviewed for this story. “I know the inner workings of this office. The sheriff was not involved in any of those mischievous things he’s been accused of.”
Paul Charlton is a former United States Attorney for Arizona who is now in private practice representing clients who say Arpaio is not only involved but he encourages the investigations.
“There are examples of time after time after time where this sheriff and the county attorney went after their political enemies,” said Charlton. “You can’t call this an aberration. We can’t call this recklessness or an accident. This is an intentional abuse of their authority and it ought not to happen in our country.”
Now, the investigations have turned on Arpaio himself. A federal grand jury is now investigating whether Arpaio, his chief deputy who is on a leave of absence, and a former county attorney used their powers to attack political opponents, according to some who have been called to testify during the grand jury proceedings.
The grand jury could announce its findings any day.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
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