Like a scene from a Western movie, the two top lawmen here are settling their scores in public.
In May, a Nye County sheriff's deputy arrested the district attorney. The sheriff, Tony De Meo, alleges that the D.A., Robert Beckett, was misusing public funds.
According to Mr. De Meo, public money had gone to supporting the local cheerleading squad, led by the D.A.'s wife, and to make a family friend's car payments. No charges have been filed, in part because Mr. Beckett, the D.A., refuses to charge himself.
Meanwhile, Mr. Beckett appointed a special prosecutor to investigate possible abuses of power by the sheriff's office and other public officials. Mr. Beckett claims that arresting him was part of an effort to sabotage his re-election. Mr. Beckett ended up running last among five candidates in the Republican primary.
The special prosecutor filed felony charges against the sheriff's deputy, David Boruchowitz, who had arrested the D.A.
Mr. Boruchowitz was also the sheriff's informal press liaison. And after he was summoned to lock himself in the corrugated metal county jail, he sent out a press release with his own mug shot announcing he had been arrested. A judge later rejected the charges, contending Mr. Beckett didn't have the power to appoint a special prosecutor. So Mr. Beckett refiled the charges himself.
Nye County occupies a vast stretch of desert, twice the size of New Hampshire, that runs from the California border up through the middle of Nevada. Most of the county is so desolate that for years the military conducted atomic testing here. Its sparse local economy includes a gold mine and a dairy farm, as well as seven brothels (legal in parts of Nevada), whose fees finance the county's ambulance services.
But in the past two decades, the county's largest town, Pahrump, 45 minutes from Las Vegas, nearly quadrupled in population, to nearly 40,000, and the local government struggled to keep up with the proliferation of houses and mini-malls strewn across the desert.
Mr. De Meo, the sheriff, and Mr. Beckett, the D.A., haven't gotten along in years. Mr. De Meo complains that his department arrests people who never get prosecuted. Mr. Beckett contends that some of the sheriff's cases aren't solid.
"I've often said they need a mother to stop the fighting," said Mr. Beckett's wife, JoDee Beckett. "It's like two little boys."
The public row has already derailed much of the county's criminal-justice system. The cases against Mr. Beckett and Mr. Boruchowitz got bogged down because nearly all of the other local legal figures had some connection to the two suspects. The district court's two sitting county judges both recused themselves, as did a justice of the peace. The state attorney general couldn't get involved because one of its lawyers is running for district attorney.
On June 20, the Nevada Supreme Court shipped a judge from a town several hundred miles away to appoint a special prosecutor to review the cases against Mr. Beckett and Mr. Boruchowitz.
Defense attorneys have seized on the rift between the D.A. and sheriff. One defense attorney representing a murder suspect wrote in a legal filing: "A review of the Internet reveals that Nye County is the laughing stock of the known universe."
Public officials in Nye County have frequently been accused of misconduct. A look back at the year 2009 by the local newspaper, the Pahrump Valley Times, found two bribery cases, the arrest of a former county commissioner for alleged securities fraud and attempts to recall public officials.
When Mr. Beckett ran for re-election this year, his political baggage was already weighing him down. Two years earlier, he came under public scrutiny after flipping two cars in a single day—including one owned by the county. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for reckless driving. Friends begged him not to run.
"I tried to explain to everyone what happened," he says. "Next thing you know, they want your head on the wall."
Later, the county decided to conduct an audit of the D.A.'s bad-checks unit. State law allows these units to work out payment plans rather than charge people with a crime.
Mr. Beckett's bad-checks unit was well known in the county. The D.A. can collect fees of up to 10% of the check's value that can be used for administrative costs and to establish programs to deter bad-check writing or to assist crime victims. The law governing bad checks specifies the money is to be deposited in a county treasury, but Mr. Beckett says he got permission from the county to keep the money in a separate account.
"Bank of America was a lot more convenient, and they have a branch at Albertsons [supermarket] near the office that doesn't charge fees," Mr. Beckett explained.
The sheriff maintains that was illegal.
Mr. Becket says he used the account as a kind of Santa Claus fund for the junior rodeo or the softball team. "People would come to us and say, 'Bob, we're broke. The kids have no programs they can participate in.' I said, 'Well, OK. Maybe I can sponsor your program, but you have to give us something back.'"
In return, he would often get to display a banner promoting his program to deter bad checks, he says. Mr. Beckett says that aggressive marketing made it more effective. He contends that it was legal to spend the money that way.
The sheriff says the fund spent about $6,000 on the cheerleading squad run by Mrs. Beckett, among many other uses the sheriff deemed illegal. Mr. Beckett contends he gave to various community programs and did not favor family members.
But county officials say that when they wanted to audit the fund, Mr. Beckett stalled. On April 21, Mr. Beckett missed a meeting with the auditor. Later that day, Mr. Boruchowitz obtained a warrant to search the D.A.'s office, located just down the hall from the sheriff.
Two weeks later, Mr. Boruchowitz arrested Mr. Beckett.
The special prosecutor is now tasked with sorting out all the conflicting legal claims that have drawn in most major public figures in the county.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Kirk Vitto said he's concerned "the sideshow will take over the circus."
By ALEXANDRA BERZON