The contempt proceeding involving Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaio was always going to come down to a test of wills with the federal judge whose order in a racial profiling case had been spurned by the headstrong law enforcement chief.
But the hearing took a startlingly personal turn Thursday when the man who bills himself as "America's toughest sheriff" admitted that his former lawyer had hired a private detective to investigate the jurist's wife.
Investigating opponents is not exactly unheard of in Phoenix, where there have been charges in the media that Arpaio had used his office for such inquiries before. Two elected county supervisors and a judge were reportedly among those investigated and charged with crimes in the last decade after feuding with the Maricopa County sheriff.
The Justice Department had filed a lawsuit against the sheriff as part of its investigation into whether Arpaio had abused the power of his office, which he has held for six terms and is expected to seek again next year.
Still, the latest admission -- and the sheriff's apology – came during a proceeding before the very judge whose wife was the target of the investigation. The news shocked the downtown Phoenix courtroom, which reacted with "gasps and murmurs," according to a report from the Arizona Republic.
Arpaio and several of his top deputies are involved in a civil contempt hearing for ignoring U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow's order to stop racially profiling and discriminating against Latinos. In 2011, Snow ordered Arpaio's office to stop detaining people based on suspicion of being in the country illegally. Snow ruled that officers needed more than just a suspicion to stop a motorist.
Arpaio has said repeatedly that he needed to take a tough line against immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally because the federal government was failing in its duty to protect the border with Mexico and stop migrants from entering. Any ignoring of the judge's order was not willful, Arpaio argued, even though he and other officials were caught on video disparaging the court order and urging that it be ignored.
The sheriff took the stand Wednesday and Thursday in his own defense. His appearance came after a Maricopa County sergeant had testified that Arpaio personally issued orders to continue the crackdown, despite Snow's order to halt.
Arpaio came under sharp questioning over his TV interviews, press releases and campaign fundraising, as lawyers sought to use his own words against him in proving that he willfully defied Snow's orders to stop carrying out his immigration patrols.
Arpaio gave soft-spoken and terse answers in his second day on the witness stand in the hearing that could lead to fines, increased oversight of his agency and a possible criminal contempt hearing. On several occasions he said, "I don't recall."
A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union played recordings of TV interviews, including a 2012 segment on Fox News with host Neil Cavuto in which the sheriff called out the Obama administration over its immigration policies and said he would keep arresting immigrants who were in the country illegally.
In the court hearing, Arpaio apologized for disregarding Snow's 2011 order to stop the immigration patrols. The order was issued after Snow found the agency had racially profiled Latinos. Arpaio has acknowledged the violation, which lasted for 18 months.
"I have a deep respect for the courts," Arpaio said. "It really hurts me after 55 years to be in this position. I want to apologize to the judge. I should have known more about these court orders that slipped through the cracks."
Asked whether defying the court order meant he had violated his oath of office, Arpaio said, "I did not intend to violate my oath."
Then came the blockbuster: Snow's wife.
After Arpaio had finished his testimony Thursday, Snow began asking questions, including whether the sheriff was investigating his family.
"Are you aware that I've been investigated by anyone?" the judge asked.
Arpaio said he believed his former lawyer, Tim Casey, had hired a private investigator to focus on Snow's wife after she purportedly made a comment that about the judge not wanting the sheriff to get reelected in 2012.
"We weren't investigating you," Arpaio told Snow. "We were investigating some comments that came to our attention."
Casey declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege, when the Associated Press reached him after the development in court.
Snow's wife could not be immediately reached for comment.
The case is scheduled to continue through Friday.