In his 18 years as sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Joe Arpaio has embraced controversy.

Story highlights

Joe Arpaio is known for making his inmates wear pink underwear

He also instituted inmate "chain gangs"

Arpaio is an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration

He recently has been courted by GOP presidential candidates

CNN  — 

In his 18 years as Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio has cut a controversial figure, gaining international notoriety for making prison inmates wear pink underwear and pink handcuffs and housing them in tents.

Rather than shy away from controversy, he has embraced it, touting his nickname of “America’s Toughest Sheriff” on his website and boasting that his inmate meals are the cheapest in the nation, costing between 15 and 40 cents apiece. His cutting out salt and pepper saved taxpayers $20,000 a year, according to his biography on the sheriff’s website.

Another program Arpaio began posts mugshots of all those arrested – about 300 daily – on the sheriff’s website as they are booked and processed into jail, according to the biography. The site gets “just under a million hits daily,” it said. He has been re-elected to five four-year terms as sheriff since taking office in 1993.

On Thursday, the Justice Department said it had found cause to believe the sheriff’s office “has engaged in a pattern of misconduct that violates the Constitution and federal law.” Among its findings were that the sheriff’s department – under the leadership of Arpaio, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration – discriminates against Latinos through traffic stops, detentions and arrests and also punishes Latino inmates with limited English proficiency by punishing them and denying them critical services, the Justice Department said.

Arpaio, 79, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, according to Time magazine. He served in the U.S. Army from 1950 to 1953, the sheriff’s site says, and he was a police officer in Washington and Las Vegas before serving as a federal narcotics agent, ending his Drug Enforcement Administration career as head of the DEA for Arizona, according to the biography. He and his wife have been married for more than 54 years and have four grandchildren.

“Arpaio looks forward to many more years as sheriff of Maricopa County,” the sheriff’s website said.

As sheriff, Arpaio has garnered both glowing praise and sharp criticism. An Internet search brings up one website titled, “Sheriff Joe Arpaio Maricopa County Must Go!” The site alleges that “community law enforcement takes a back seat to publicity stunts” under Arpaio and that the sheriff “lives in a fantasy world of self-importance,” among other things.

But other sites offer different opinions: “Tell me we don’t need more elected officials with his level of conviction,” one blogger wrote.

“The public is my boss,” Arpaio, who mulled a run for the governor’s office in 2010, said on the sheriff’s website, “so I serve the public.”

During his tenure, the sheriff banned smoking, coffee, movies, pornographic magazines and unrestricted televisions in jails, according to his biography. The jail system’s inmates – between 7,500 and 10,000 – are fed twice daily to cut down on meal costs. The infamous pink underwear came about when Arpaio had all inmate underwear dyed pink after learning inmates were stealing white boxer shorts, the sheriff’s site said. He also ordered pink handcuffs when those began disappearing.

Another controversial program: Arpaio’s “chain gangs,” including the world’s first-ever female and juvenile chain gangs. The groups clean streets, paint over graffiti and bury the indigent in the county cemetery, providing “thousands of dollars of free labor to the community,” the sheriff’s office said.

“No wonder Sheriff Arpaio has been profiled in over 4,500 U.S. and foreign newspapers, magazines and TV news programs,” the website said.

Arpaio also briefly starred in the FOX reality show, “Smile: You’re Under Arrest.” It featured the sheriff and other officers using elaborate ploys crafted by comedy writers and carried out by professional actors to arrest suspects with outstanding warrants.

However, not all of the sheriff’s media coverage has been positive. In May, critics called for Arpaio’s resignation, alleging an audit showed he misspent $100 million designated for a jail fund to pay deputies’ salaries, CNN affiliate KNPX reported. Arpaio called the audit funding a “payroll discrepancy issue” and said he would work to fix the problem without affecting taxpayers, the station said.

The Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union have also tangled with Arpaio over the immigration raids conducted by his department.

But in recent months, Arpaio’s anti-immigration stance made him a force to be reckoned with as far as GOP presidential candidates were concerned.

“Interesting day,” he said on Twitter this fall. “… received call from (Texas) Gov. (Rick) Perry. 3 hours later received a call from Mitt Romney’s campaign official.”

“They don’t come see me because I’m tall, dark and handsome,” Arpaio told CNN last month. “They come for my endorsement.”

Herman Cain met with Arpaio in Phoenix, just days after Cain suggested electrifying the southern border fence to shock people trying to cross illegally into the United States from Mexico. Arpaio said he didn’t think that was a big deal. “I have illegal immigrants in tents, hot tents,” he said. “I have them on chain gangs.”

In September, Michele Bachmann came to Arpaio’s office and declared, “Sheriff Joe is the nation’s sheriff. He is one of my heroes.”

But later that month, it wound up being Perry who snagged Arpaio’s nod. The sheriff said Perry’s experience in working to secure the Texas border was unmatched among Republican candidates.

“He doesn’t just talk about it, he does something about it,” Arpaio said. “We have to look at someone who’s already doing something about this problem.”

CNN’s Ed Lavandera contributed to this report.