PHOENIX — Failed corruption investigations launched by America's self-proclaimed toughest sheriff have succeeded in getting one of the lawman's top allies disbarred.
And despite Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's efforts to distance himself from cases at the center of a legal ethics panel inquiry that cost a pair of former county prosecutors their careers — the fallout has moved closer.
"Sheriff Arpaio is the next big step," said Mary Rose Wilcox, a Maricopa County official who has been at odds with the sheriff and his allies. "He will fall."
Arpaio has denied wrongdoing, but the three-member disciplinary panel of the Arizona courts said Tuesday that evidence suggests the sheriff conspired with Maricopa County's former top prosecutor to intimidate a judge with unfounded criminal charges.
The ethics board's sweeping ruling against former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and one of his assistant prosecutors says they wrongfully brought criminal charges against a pair of county officials, including Wilcox, in December 2009.
The panel said the charges were brought to embarrass the county officials and the judge who had been at odds with Arpaio and Thomas.
Arpaio and Thomas have defended their actions, saying they were working to root out corruption in county government.
Arpaio does not face punishment, but investigations by his anti-public corruption squad were discussed heavily during the ethics investigation into Thomas and one of his deputy prosecutors, Lisa Aubuchon.
Arpaio testified during the hearings, saying in September that he didn't follow the investigations closely and delegated the cases to his then-top assistant David Hendershott.
The ruling disbarring Thomas and Aubuchon marked the first official comment by the state's legal establishment on the validity of the investigations.
It also supported lawyers who said Arpaio and Thomas wrongly went after judges, attorneys and government officials who crossed them, using criminal investigations as a weapon.
Longtime critics are predicting the damage from the failed cases will do what Justice Department lawsuits, claims of civil rights violations and protests over his hardline stance on immigration could not — hurt him with voters.
But predictions of Arpaio's political demise have cropped up many times over his five terms in office, often centering on the deaths of inmates in his jails or his immigration patrols that critics say are infected by racial profiling.
And Arpaio is fond of pointing out that he has survived many storms in the past.
Arpaio, who rarely declines an interview request, commented on the ethics panel rulings Tuesday only through a written statement that described Thomas as a "hard-working professional who served the people of this county for many years."
Arpaio also said in the statement, "Today's decision no doubt is a disappointment to Andrew Thomas, his family and his colleagues."
The sheriff it would be inappropriate to comment further.
County officials who were targeted in the investigations say the sheriff has run baseless investigations and tried to intimidate county workers for years.
Arpaio and Thomas became embroiled in a yearlong political blood feud with county officials, including County Supervisors Wilcox and Don Stapley.
They brought criminal charges against the officials and a then-Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe in December 2009.
All three cases were dismissed after a judge ruled that Thomas prosecuted one of the officials for political gain and had a conflict of interest in pressing the case.
The ethics panel ruled that Thomas and Aubuchon broke criminal intimidation and perjury laws in knowingly bringing false bribery charges against Donahoe.
"It was clear to us that Mr. Thomas and Ms. Aubuchon were not working independent of the sheriff and vice versa," said John Gleason, an attorney who led the case on behalf of the State Bar of Arizona.
Other county officials and judges who were at odds with Arpaio and Thomas also were investigated but weren't charged with crimes.
Thomas, who called the ethics case against a "political witch hunt," said the decision to charge the judge had nothing to do with the decisions the judge issued against his office.
The panel pointed out the testimony of a sheriff's investigator who recounted the reactions of Aubuchon and Hendershott when they learned the court hearing had been called off. The investigator said Aubuchon looked pleased and Hendershott said, "checkmate."
The ruling said Hendershott credited Arpaio with coming up with the idea of charging the judge, and the sheriff's investigator who signed the criminal complaint hadn't done any investigation of Donahoe.
Separate from the attorney disciplinary case, a federal grand jury also has been investigating Arpaio's office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations since at least December 2009 and is specifically examining the investigative work of the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad that produced the unsuccessful probes.
Antonio Bustamante, a Phoenix civil rights attorney and critic of the sheriff's forays into immigration enforcement, said the Thomas decision, to some degree, politically hurts Arpaio, but he added that many voters don't realize Arpaio's office carried out the investigations.
"Those who know that Joe Arpaio was the investigative muscle behind much of what Thomas did will take note that Arpaio is tinged," Bustamante said.