- Associated Press - Sunday, February 19, 2012

FLORENCE, Ariz. (AP) — A nationally known sheriff resigned from presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s Arizona campaign committee and acknowledged he was gay amid allegations of misconduct made by a man with whom he previously had a relationship.

But Pinal County SheriffPaul Babeu vowed Saturday to continue his bid for the GOP nomination in Arizona’s rural 4th Congressional District race.

He denied claims he tried to threaten the man, a Mexican immigrant and a former campaign volunteer, with deportation if their past relationship was made public. The man’s allegations were first published Friday in the Phoenix New Times, an alternative weekly magazine.

Sheriff Babeu, a first-term lawman who has gained widespread attention with his strong opposition to illegal immigration and smuggling, said the accusations were an attempt to hurt his political career.

He said he had called Mr. Romney’s staff to say he would step down from his post as state campaign co-chair.

“This whole rumor, this whole of idea of who I am in my private life has been shopped around,” Sheriff Babeu told reporters during an hour-long press conference Saturday in front of his sheriff’s office. “This was a way, the hook, of how this could be brought out, and to malign and attack a sheriff who does stand for conservative principals, who does enforce the law.”

The man’s lawyer, Melissa Weiss-Riner, released a statement Saturday saying the man retained her firm’s services because he was contacted by Sheriff Babeu’s attorney and “felt intimidated.”

“Jose continues to live in fear and is currently in the process of moving again,” she said. “Therefore, he is not available to speak with the media at this time.”

Ms. Weiss-Riner earlier told the New Times that Sheriff Babeu’s attorney and campaign consultant falsely told her client that his visa had expired. Sheriff Babeu told reporters he believed the man — identified only by his first name, Jose — was living in the country legally.

The New Times posted a photo provided by the man of the two embracing. It also posted a cellphone self-portrait of a smiling Sheriff Babeu in his underwear and another of what appears to be the shirtless sheriff in a bathroom, posted on a gay dating website. The man provided the magazine with photos of himself and Sheriff Babeu and text messages between the two. Sheriff Babeu didn’t deny their authenticity.

The huge congressional district where Sheriff Babeu is seeking election runs from western Arizona all the way to the desert south of Phoenix. Its voters are heavily Republican and generally very conservative.

Sheriff Babeu issued a sweeping denial of any wrongdoing in front of his headquarters. The press conference was attended by about three dozen high-ranking uniformed deputies, local elected officials and citizens.

“I’m here to say that all the allegations that were in the story were untrue — except for the instance that refers to me as gay,” Sheriff Babeu said. “That’s the truth — I am gay.”

He said he didn’t have the power as a local sheriff to get anyone deported.

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