MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The self-professed toughest sheriff in America is facing a growing number of problems. The latest blow came this week when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio announced the arrest of three fellow employees. They are accused of helping a Mexican drug cartel smuggle people and narcotics.

From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Paul Atkinson reports.

PAUL ATKINSON: The one thing you need to know about Joe Arpaio is that he craves publicity. He's regularly on local TV news, cable talk shows, even international media. But the 78-year-old lawman now finds himself dealing with the kind of publicity no elected official wants.

This week, Arpaio held a press conference to announce two of his detention officers and a deputy were arrested for allegedly helping a Mexican drug cartel.

Sheriff JOE ARPAIO (Maricopa County, Arizona): That a deputy sheriff would provide information and associate with these drug and human traffickers is despicable.

ATKINSON: Arpaio says the deputy drove smuggled immigrants to California and even had two suspected illegal immigrants at his home. Arpaio also says one of the two female detention officers is romantically involved with the leader of the smuggling ring and is eight months pregnant with his child.

In light of these revelations, Sheriff Arpaio vows to clean up shop.

Sheriff ARPAIO: So if there's any problems in this office, I'm going to take action. I don't care who they are - top to bottom.

ATKINSON: But the list of problems is getting longer. A local police department claims sheriff's detectives failed to fully investigate 400 sex crimes. Arpaio's chief deputy quit last month rather than be fired after an investigation found abuses of power and inappropriate activities. A financial audit discovered the sheriff misspent $100 million to fund immigration sweeps and investigations into people who questioned his policies.

Arpaio was elected sheriff of Maricopa County in 1992 after a 30-year career in the Drug Enforcement Administration. He runs Arizona's largest jail system, where he first gained attention for banning girlie magazines, serving inmates baloney sandwiches and forcing them to wear pink underwear.

Mr. PAUL CHARLTON: He knew how to play the media.

ATKINSON: Paul Charlton is a former U.S. attorney for Arizona.

Mr. CHARLTON: He knew what policies that he could implement would draw media attention, not only in the state, not only in the country, but internationally. But he was at the same time, an individual - when I was in the U.S. Attorney's Office - who understood what it meant to be a good law enforcement officer.

ATKINSON: Charlton says that changed in late 2006 after a new conservative county prosecutor was elected and Arpaio's focus shifted to illegal immigration.

Mr. CHARLTON: I think Joe Arpaio lost his perspective. He lost his way and began to become more concerned with pursuing his political enemies than he did with doing what's right, than with doing justice.

ATKINSON: Even a member of Arpaio's administration concedes the sheriff may have lost his focus. At a press conference this week, Chief Deputy Jack MacIntyre told reporters the sheriff might have enjoyed spending too much time with the media and not enough overseeing his agency.

CHIEF DEPUTY JACK MacINTYRE (Maricopa County, Arizona): And there are a lot of human frailties and a lot of reasons for it. Certainly, I don't think Joe Arpaio has ever claimed to be perfect.

ATKINSON: Arpaio has admitted as much and says he'll bring in outside consultants to help. But it may be too late. The Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division is investigating Arpaio's office for its treatment of inmates and alleged racial profiling during immigration sweeps. And the FBI and local U.S. Attorney's Office is looking into whether Arpaio abused his power by targeting elected officials and judges who publically disagreed with his policies.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Atkinson in Phoenix.

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