DENVER — The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday sued a controversial and popular Arizona sheriff, alleging that his department was refusing to cooperate with an investigation into whether it discriminated against Latinos while trying to catch illegal immigrants.
The Department of Justice said that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was the first local law enforcement official in 30 years to refuse to provide documents in a federal civil rights probe. The federal government could withhold $113 million in funding from Maricopa County if Arpaio can't produce records demonstrating that he avoids racial discrimination.
"The actions of the sheriff's office are unprecedented. It is unfortunate that the department was forced to resort to litigation to gain access to public documents and facilities," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the department's Civil Rights Division.
Arpaio contended that the lawsuit was a political move by the Obama administration, which filed another high-profile lawsuit against Arizona this summer to stop a tough new immigration law from taking effect.
"These actions make it abundantly clear that Arizona, including this sheriff, is Washington's new whipping boy," Arpaio said in a statement. "Washington isn't playing fair and it's time Americans everywhere wake up and see this administration for what it really is — calculating, underhanded at times and certainly not looking out for the best interests of the legal citizens residing in this country."
Arpaio, who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff," has drawn praise and criticism for his aggressive attempts to enforce immigration laws. Most prominent are operations dubbed "sweeps," in which his deputies fan out across immigrant neighborhoods, stopping people for sometimes minor violations — such as jaywalking — and asking their immigration status.
Critics contend the operations amount to racial profiling. Arpaio says his deputies only look for people breaking the law, a contention he reiterated at a televised news conference Thursday in Phoenix. "I'm very confident that my deputies don't racially profile," he said.
The Obama administration last year revoked Arpaio's authority to enforce federal immigration laws on the streets, a move that had little practical effect because the sheriff said state law allows him to continue his operations. But his battle with the federal government predates President Obama.
In the summer of 2008, under President George W. Bush, the Department of Justice launched a preliminary investigation into the allegations of racial profiling. In March of 2009 the department expanded the inquiry into a full-fledged probe.