A federal investigation of an Arizona sheriff known for tough immigration enforcement has intensified in recent days, escalating the conflict between the Obama administration and officials in the border state.

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WASHINGTON —

A federal investigation of an Arizona sheriff known for tough immigration enforcement has intensified in recent days, escalating the conflict between the Obama administration and officials in the border state.

Justice Department officials have issued a rare threat to sue Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio if he didn’t cooperate by Tuesday with their investigation into whether he discriminates against Hispanics. The civil-rights probe is one of two targeting the man who calls himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff” — a federal grand jury in Phoenix is examining whether Arpaio has used his power to investigate and intimidate political opponents and whether his office misappropriated government funds, sources said.

The standoff comes weeks after the Justice Department sued Arizona and Republican Gov. Jan Brewer over the state’s new immigration law. Renewed attention also has been focused on Arpaio, a former Washington, D.C., police officer who runs a 3,800-employee department.

Once seen as a quirky figure who dresses inmates in pink underwear and forces them to work on chain gangs, Arpaio in recent years has become a folk hero to those who support his heavily publicized “crime sweeps,” mostly in Hispanic neighborhoods. Civil-rights groups, meanwhile, accuse the 78-year-old lawman of racial profiling. Some Maricopa County officials also say he has launched meritless corruption investigations against officials who have criticized his policies or opposed his requests.

Maricopa County Manager David Smith said grand jurors also questioned him about deputies’ trips to conferences and training missions in Las Vegas, Honduras and other destinations, where he said they often stayed at “boutique” hotels.

Those allegations are at the core of the investigations, according to documents, lawyers familiar with the probes and people who have been questioned by FBI agents and the grand jury.

The Justice Department’s criminal investigation is led by Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney in Phoenix and a former top aide to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Two of Arpaio’s lawyers, Robert Driscoll and Asheesh Agarwal, were Justice Department Civil Rights Division officials in the George W. Bush administration.

Driscoll and Agarwal denied all accusations against the sheriff, a Republican who has been re-elected four times since 1992.

“The sheriff’s office is cooperating fully with the grand-jury investigation and has complete confidence that the inquiry will clear it of any wrongdoing,” Agarwal said.

The lawyers contended the investigations are politically motivated, citing a news conference in March at which Attorney General Eric Holder was quoted as saying he expects the Arpaio investigations to “produce results.”

Brewer and her supporters also have claimed the Justice Department was politically motivated in its lawsuit over the state law, which authorizes police officers to question people suspected of being in the country illegally. A federal judge last month stopped the most controversial sections of the law from taking effect.

Justice Department officials say the investigations and the lawsuit are based on the facts and the law. They declined to comment on details of the Arpaio probes.

The Civil Rights Division investigation began in March 2009 and focuses on whether Arpaio’s department engaged in “discriminatory police practices and unconstitutional searches and seizures,” along with allegations that his jail discriminated against Hispanic inmates, according to letters the division sent Arpaio. A complaint said bilingual jail guards are required to speak to inmates only in English, which could endanger their medical care. The jail also was accused of forcing Hispanic visitors to the facility to fill out a “citizenship check” form, the letters said.

Civil Rights Division lawyers have interviewed Phoenix-area human-rights leaders repeatedly about Arpaio’s sweeps, while local “cop watch” groups have turned over hours of video footage of them.

In an Aug. 3 letter to Arpaio’s lawyers, Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said the sheriff’s office had refused repeated requests to turn over documents and meet with investigators. Without cooperation by Tuesday, the letter said, the government would file suit.

In his reply Thursday, Arpaio lawyer Driscoll accused the Justice Department of “a desperate attempt” to compel cooperation and of “a public-relations campaign against Sheriff Arpaio.”

“DOJ cannot require the reproduction of millions of pages of documents so DOJ can ‘see what it can find,’ ” Driscoll added.

Arpaio’s resistance and the Justice Department’s threat of such a lawsuit are rare. Justice officials said they plan to meet with Arpaio’s lawyers next week in a last-ditch effort to forestall litigation. If a broader civil lawsuit is filed, multimillion-dollar federal grants to Arpaio’s office could be terminated or a judge could compel him to cooperate.

On a separate track, the grand-jury probe has been under way since at least January. Lawyers familiar with the investigation and witnesses said it is focused on allegations that Arpaio and his deputies have retaliated against county-board members who fight his budget and other issues by launching at least seven criminal investigations of officials.

Some legal experts say it could be difficult for such allegations to result in criminal charges. “I don’t know what a charge would be,” said Peter Zeidenberg, a former Justice Department public-corruption prosecutor. “We all would agree that being abusive is wrong, but I’m not aware of any federal statute that would fit.”

In one case, Arpaio leveled 40 corruption-related charges against a county supervisor who had spoken out against his policies. All charges were dismissed by a judge.

In another, Arpaio’s allies in the county attorney’s office filed more than 100 criminal counts against another supervisor for improperly filling out required financial-disclosure forms. After a judge dismissed most of those, deputies arrested the supervisor and walked him before TV cameras to jail, announcing more than 100 new charges, also dismissed by a judge. (Some original charges remain on appeal.)

“They’ll never stop,” said Maricopa County Deputy Manager Sandi Wilson, named in one of Arpaio’s investigations. “They don’t care who tells them to stop.”