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 Sheriff Paul 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.
Sheriff Babeu, who is not married, said he had been in a relationship with Jose that ended sometime before September. Jose also ran his campaign website and Twitter account, and Sheriff Babeu said he began posting derogatory items on the sites after their breakup.
Sheriff Babeu said he had his lawyer contact Jose and demanded that he stop and turn over passwords allowing access to the sites. Sheriff Babeu said the postings and actions amounted to identity theft but that he chose to deal with the matter privately through his lawyer.
Ms. Weiss-Riner’s statement Saturday said that as a campaign volunteer, Jose created and maintained several websites and accounts at Sheriff Babeu’s request from approximately 2008 through late 2011. She did not elaborate.
It’s wasn’t immediately clear if Sheriff Babeu’s admission would hurt him politically, but his primary opponents came out swinging.
Sheriff Babeu is taking on an incumbent tea party Republican who switched districts, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, and state Sen. Ron Gould, a conservative from northwestern Arizona, in August’s 4th District primary.
Mr. Gould said he believed Sheriff Babeu’s posting of pictures on what the lawmaker called a “homosexual hookup website” were a “Congressman Weiner type of moment.”
“The real issue here is the poor judgment of a government official, posting those kinds of photos on a public website,” Mr. Gould said. “I think that shows a lack of good judgment.”
He also said he believes Sheriff Babeu’s sexual orientation would hurt him in the district. Mr. Gould sponsored Arizona’s constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, an amendment he said drew extremely strong support in the rural counties he and Sheriff Babeu seek to represent.
“This is about an abuse of power, a misuse of public trust, bad judgment and the continued use of official resources for personal and political gain,” Mr. Gosar said in a statement that noted the location of the press conference and the large gathering of uniformed sheriff’s personnel at the event.
Sheriff Babeu said he has never defined himself based on his ethnicity or sexual orientation, and he would continue to focus on unemployment and the federal deficit in his campaign.
“What I’m trying to do is (be) as forthright as possible, talking about deeply personal, private matters, and trying to be upfront,” Sheriff Babeu said. “The disclosure of that information is something that I feel no American should have to do.”
Sheriff Babeu acknowledged that he has sent and posted the photos, but said they were personal. When asked if posting such pictures on a public website showed poor judgment for a public official, he reiterated that he believed they were personal.
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