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Matt York, Associated Press
Protestors of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents working with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, are arrested by Phoenix Police officers, Thursday, April 23, 2015, for blocking the intersection in front of the U.S. Federal Court in Phoenix. The protest to remove ICE agents from county jails is in conjunction with the fifth anniversary of Arizona's SB 1070 immigration bill.

PHOENIX — A hearing to decide whether to hold an Arizona sheriff in contempt of court for violating orders in a racial-profiling case took a surprising turn when the lawman acknowledged that his office was behind a secret investigation into the judge's wife.

Judge Murray Snow questioned Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio after testimony wrapped up Thursday, primarily about whether the agency was investigating Snow or 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 investigate Snow's wife after she purportedly made a comment about the judge not wanting the sheriff to get re-elected in 2012.

"We weren't investigating you," Arpaio told the judge. "We were investigating some comments that came to our attention."

Snow is an appointee of President George W. Bush who has been overseeing the sprawling racial profiling case against Arpaio, who is known for cracking down on illegal immigration.

The judge determined in 2013 that the sheriff's office systematically racially profiled Latinos during traffic stops and then convened the contempt-of-court hearing this week after Arpaio defied his orders to stop carrying out immigration patrols. The hearing could lead to fines, increased oversight of the agency and a possible criminal contempt hearing.

The case has battered Arpaio's legacy. He was once a hero to conservatives nationwide for taking on immigration but has seen his political strength weaken with a series of negative court rulings and lawsuits.

The normally brash sheriff gave soft-spoken and terse answers in his second day on the witness stand. His demeanor lacked the bravado he normally brings to news conferences and TV interviews, and he answered several questions with "I don't recall."

His testimony came five years to the day after the signing of Arizona's landmark immigration law known as SB 1070. About 200 protesters marched Thursday to the federal courthouse where Arpaio testified to mark the anniversary and draw attention to immigration policies.

It was not immediately clear what consequences Arpaio could face over the private investigator. Federal law prohibits trying to intimidate or inappropriately influence a federal judge.

Paul Charlton, the former top federal prosecutor for Arizona and an Arpaio critic, said an inquiry needs to determine if any laws were broken.

"What we heard today is deserving of scrutiny by federal law enforcement because it is inappropriate — if not unlawful — to investigate a sitting district court judge," said Charlton, who isn't involved in the contempt case.

Casey, the sheriff's former lawyer, declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege.

Arpaio has a long history of investigating his opponents. Two elected county supervisors and a judge were among those investigated and charged with crimes in the past decade after feuding with the sheriff's office. Those officials said the allegations were trumped up. The investigations failed, leading the county to pay some of them seven-figure settlements.

An official has said sheriff's investigators went to the homes of 70 county and court staffers on nights and weekends in 2009 to try to intimidate them.

In 2010, then-County Manager David Smith told The Associated Press that Arpaio's message was clear: "We know where you live. We know where to find you. Do something we don't like, and you're at risk."

A federal grand jury investigated Arpaio's office for nearly three years on criminal abuse-of-power allegations, specifically examining the work of the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad that investigated the officials. The grand jury inquiry ended in 2012 without charges being filed.

A pending civil rights lawsuit by the U.S. Justice Department alleges the agency has retaliated against Arpaio's critics.

In court Thursday, the self-proclaimed "America's Toughest Sheriff" came under sharp questioning about his TV interviews, press releases and campaign fundraising. Lawyers sought to use Arpaio's words against him to prove he willfully defied court orders to stop carrying out his signature immigration patrols.

An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union played recordings of TV interviews, including a 2012 segment on Fox News in which the sheriff called out the Obama administration over its immigration policies and said he would keep arresting immigrants in the country illegally.

Arpaio apologized again for disregarding the 2011 order to stop the patrols and has acknowledged ignoring it for 18 months.

"I have a deep respect for the courts," he said. "It really hurts me after 55 years to be in this position."