(Updated at 4:23 pm ET 2/18/12)
Tough-guy sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County, Ariz., faced a press conference Saturday afternoon to deny charges leveled at him by a former gay lover. The formerly closeted gay man was blunt and frank.
"All these allegations that were in one of these newspapers are absolutely completely false, except for the issues that refer to me as being gay. Because that's the truth. I am gay," Pinal County, Ariz. Sheriff Paul Babeu said at Saturday presser.
Flanked by county deputies, state representatives and other GOP notables, the lanky, shaved-headed, tattooed sheriff and Republican candidate for the state's 4th Congressional district denied allegations made by a former lover, identified in the Phoenix New Times only as "Jose" that Babeu threatened to have him deported if he didn't keep his mouth shut about their relationship.
Babeu acknowledged a past personal and professional relationship with his accuser "Jose," but denied the charges made that he'd threatened him with deportation.
"I don't have the authority to deport anyone," Babeu said.
The allegations came to light Thursday when the Phoenix alternative newspaper published the story on its website.
At the hastily called Saturday afternoon press conference in front of the Pinal County sheriff's office in the county seat of Florence, Ariz., Babeu said he was never aware of "Jose's" legal status.
Although Babeu will attempt to stay in the saddle as Pinal County sheriff and 4th District GOP congressional candidate, he has stepped down as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's Arizona Campaign Co-chair.
"Sheriff Babeu has stepped down from his volunteer position with the campaign so he can focus on the allegations against him. We support his decision," Romney spokesperson Andrea Paul told Talking Points Memo, taking a firm grasp of Babeu's uniform collar and belt, hurling him under the campaign bus.
Babeu was considered a rising star among the state GOP after his appearance with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) campaign ad in 2010 centering on illegal immigration. "Senator McCain, you are one of us," Babeu said.
"Jose" made it clear in the New Times expose that Babeu was "one of us" as well as he outlined his years-long relationship with Babeu that went sour as he suspected the sheriff of cheating on him.
He claimed that Babeu's laywer threatened him with deportation if he didn't agree to keep his silence about his relationship with the popular sheriff.
Melissa Weiss-Riner confirmed "Jose's" account of events to the New Times.
She says she spoke directly to the sheriff's lawyer, Chris DeRose, about the Babeu camp's threats that Jose could be deported if he "revealed the relationship." She says DeRose falsely claimed that Jose's visa had expired.
"Jose came to our firm because he felt he was being intimidated, and he was in fear for his life," Weiss-Riner says. "He wanted his legal rights protected."
The newspaper says Babeu didn't respond to requests for comment by publication time for their article, but his attorney says the dispute between Jose and the sheriff concerned Jose's work on Babeu's websites. He says Jose was a former volunteer who hacked into a campaign website.
The New Times claims to have text and e-mail messages, many of which seem to have been sent from the sheriff's business phone. Babeu identifies himself on his voice mail and says he is the sheriff of Pinal County.
After his appearance with Sen. McCain on the 2010 campaign ad, Babeu because the darling of the immigration hawk conservative set, and he found himself as a guest on Fox News more frequently.
He was also controversial in the support, then firing of Pinal County Deputy Louie Puroll, who claimed he was ambushed in the desert by runners employed by a Mexican drug cartel. Puroll's charges fueled anti-immigration sentiment in Arizona and nationally.
According to Thursday's article in the New Times:
Babeu became a regular on Fox News and other conservative national broadcasts, touting the Puroll story and bashing President Obama for failing to secure the border and for suing Arizona over state Senate Bill 1070, the stalled law that calls for local police officers to enforce federal immigration law.
He became the go-to politician for the likes of Fox News on Arizona border security, even managing to outshine Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Indeed, he became known in some circles as the "new Arpaio."
Even after it was proved that Puroll had engaged in no such skirmish, Babeu stood behind him. It wasn't until Puroll told a New Times reporter that he had met with a smuggler who threatened to kill the writer — and Puroll hadn't reported it to superiors — that the deputy was fired.
The dispute between "Jose" and Babeu began when "Jose" suspected that the sheriff was cheating on him. He employed the tactics of the old Rupert Holmes song "Escape" ("The Pina Colada Song") by answering an ad he noticed that Babeu -- identifying himself as "studboi1" placed on a gay website, "Adam4Adam," describing himself as described himself as "str8 acting, hard working and loyal," and said he was openly gay, looking for friendship and "1-on-1" sex.
Openly? Not so much, it would seem, if the community surprise over Babeu's outing is any indication.
Jose told the New Times he answered Babeu's add as "a guy named Matt." In return he received a flood of photos from the Republican sheriff.
In one photo, Babeu poses grinning in a pair of gray underwear in front of a mirror. The flash from his camera phone obscures his left shoulder. In another photo, he poses naked with an erection. His face isn't visible, but the bottom edge of one of Babeu's unmistakable arm tattoos can be seen.
The New Times reported:
In one of more than a hundred explicit text messages Jose provided between Babeu and "Matt," Babeu wrote: "I'm in law enforcement . . . sheriff. Didn't tell you that earlier stud . . . that's why I must be discrete." This exchange occurred while Babeu was attending police-training classes in Denver in June 2010, and he also offered Matt help in becoming a cop.
Talking Points Memo associate editor Paul Werdel wrote:
While it’s remarkable to see a Republican figure of national stature publicly embrace his homosexuality, and give such a forceful conservative defense of gay rights, that’s not the real issue here.
While much attention will focus on what Babeu either did or did not know about Jose's legal status, there is no indication, according to Werdel, that Babeu ever said anything one way or another about the status of gays or gay marriage in America.
If it turns out that Babeu knew "Jose" was illegal and did, in fact, threaten to have him deported, that revelation will no doubt raise some very serious questions about the man who told CPAC last week:
It will be interesting to gauge the GOP reaction to Babeu's outing over the next few days.
The web site "Mitt Romney Central" still has Babeu's endorsement of him as of 4pm Saturday.
“It is an honor to have the support of Sheriff Babeu,” said Mitt Romney. “His efforts working to protect our border are critical to lowering crime, reducing illegal immigration, and stopping both drug and human trafficking. Sheriff Babeu has been a leader in the call for the federal government to secure the border. As President, I will work with leaders like Sheriff Babeu to protect our Southern border, provide the required assistance from the federal government, and put an end to the magnets that cause illegal immigration.”
Announcing his support, Sheriff Babeu said, “Securing our border is an important part of our national security – Mitt Romney understands this. He also understands that magnets like in-state tuition for illegal immigrants don’t stop illegal immigration, they only make it worse. Of all the candidates, Mitt Romney has shown that he is the most committed to securing the border and I look forward to working with him to do this.”
The website for the recently completed CPAC has scrubbed the transcript from Babeu's speech from its site.
You can see it here.