By Associated Press
Originally published: Feb 24, 2014 - 3:32 pm

PHOENIX -- A lawyer for an Arizona restaurant owner says the sheriff's office for metro Phoenix targeted his client on identity theft allegations in a bid to discourage him from cooperating with federal officials pressing a civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff.

The office of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio went from treating Bret Frimmel as a victim of employment-related identity theft to accusing him of hiring employees who had used forged IDs, said attorney Paul Charlton, who represents Frimmel.

He said the change in approach came as the U.S. Justice Department asked Frimmel to cooperate in the civil rights case accusing Arpaio's office of racial profiling and retaliating against critics of the sheriff.

``It's an opportunity to send a message that we don't want you to cooperate with the Justice Department,'' Charlton said of accusations against Frimmel.

Arpaio's office said in a statement on Friday that Charlton's allegations were baseless.

Two Uncle Sam's restaurants owned by Frimmel were raided in July as part of an investigation into whether people who weren't authorized to be in the country had used fake or stolen identities in getting jobs. Ten employees of the restaurants were arrested on suspicion of identity theft and forgery.

Six months later, Frimmel became the first employer in metro Phoenix to be criminally charged with identity theft under an Arizona law aimed at employers who hire immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

Frimmel entered forged or fictitious Social Security numbers for employees into his laptop, and he didn't care about the immigration status of workers, Arpaio's investigators said.

Frimmel has pleaded not guilty to felony charges of trafficking in the identity of another person and taking the identity of another person. Charlton said his client has done nothing wrong.

A request by The Associated Press to interview Arpaio about Charlton's allegation was declined. The sheriff's office issued a statement, saying ``Mr. Charlton continually makes false allegations towards Sheriff Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and has for the past couple years.''

The sheriff previously denied the allegations in the Justice Department's civil rights lawsuit.

The Department of Justice and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting the charges against Frimmel, both declined to comment on Charlton's allegation.