Trial By Media (Part I)

For month after month, Phoenix news reporters repeated a disgruntled secretary's half-baked charges, helping County Attorney Richard Romley discredit a rival in the Attorney General's Office. The same media horde made scarcely a whimper when Romley cover

Deborah Vasquez recently gave a television reporter the transcripts of a tape recording made during an undercover investigation by the Arizona Attorney General's Office.

Vasquez had quit her position as secretary to first assistant attorney general Rob Carey in a hotly contested dispute last May. Since then, she has been determined in her efforts to nail Carey and his close friend, Attorney General Grant Woods, for a wide variety of purported wrongdoing. William Lajeunesse, from Channel 3, suspected the juicy documents were probably stolen, but what Vasquez told him about the attorney general's sting was even more remarkable.

Lajeunesse says Vasquez claimed the undercover sting was aborted because its target was a friend of Woods.

Vasquez has circulated dirt about Woods and Carey to anyone who would listen.

She took her allegations about Carey to his political rival, Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley, who instituted a grand jury investigation, and to the media.

This week, Romley squeezed a settlement out of the Attorney General's Office in regard to minor bookkeeping problems in a small office trust account.

The momentum for the settlement was made possible by the unending flow of scare stories Vasquez marketed to the press, including her tale of an undercover operation supposedly queered because the attorney general was friends with the target of the investigation.

In the sting that Vasquez recounted for Lajeunesse, state prosecutors sent a woman with a wire into a doctor's office, where she posed as a topless dancer. The woman's cover story was that she had slipped on spilled beer at a nightclub, injuring a knee and a wrist. The attorney general undertook the charade because a former patient of the doctor had come forward with serious charges.

The attorney general's undercover agent gathered suggestive, though not damning, audio tapes of Dr. Mark Goldberg's conversations.

The doctor and the "dancer" waltzed around the notion of committing workers' compensation fraud and raised the possibility that the two of them might rendezvous outside his medical office for drinks. The doctor and the "dancer" made a date.

But before the two could meet at a bar, the sting was called off.
"Vasquez told me the reason the investigation never went anywhere is because Grant [Woods] and Dr. Goldberg are neighbors, friends," says Lajeunesse.

When the reporter checked out this serious charge, he discovered third-party correspondence that proved Goldberg had been tipped to the sting by the bragging of the patient who had originally complained to the attorney general.

The complainant had boasted to friends of the doctor that law enforcement agents had the doctor under surveillance.

The investigation was terminated because Goldberg knew a sting was under way and broke off contact.

"I was satisfied after reviewing the transcripts and talking to the Attorney General's Office that they did not have enough for a criminal indictment," says Lajeunesse, a law school graduate.

Because the operation's cover had been blown, the attorney general referred the matter to the state medical board for disciplinary review.

In reality, Mark Goldberg is neither a friend nor a neighbor of Attorney General Grant Woods. The Woods family pediatrician, however, has a similar name: He is Dr. Arthur Goldberg.

When Deborah Vasquez quit the Attorney General's Office at the end of May 1995, she had many such "stories" to peddle about her former employers. At this late date, nearly a year after Vasquez first talked to the press about the "scandal" at the Attorney General's Office, not a single other Arizona reporter has proven as diligent as William Lajeunesse in checking out her titillating but often baseless claims.

An unquestioning press has repeated Vasquez's charges against the attorney general and his men as fast as Vasquez could level them.

County Attorney Richard Romley has used her allegations to haul witnesses before a grand jury in an effort to indict his political rival, Woods' second-in-command, Rob Carey.

Vasquez's dust devils swirled in newspapers at the very time that journalists were ignoring a far more important story: Romley's malfeasance in the investigation of Project SLIM, Governor Fife Symington's plan to streamline the state bureaucracy.

Romley's halfhearted probe of multimillion-dollar bid-rigging at Project SLIM avoided and ignored incriminating evidence and cleared the governor, his staff and his accountants of any wrongdoing.

Under Rob Carey's direction, the Attorney General's Office opened a second examination of the multimillion-dollar SLIM contracts. This time, prosecutors documented the largest case of white-collar fraud ever perpetrated on state government and Arizona taxpayers.

The very week that Carey and his lawyers announced that they had recovered nearly $800,000 in fines from the governor's accountants and deputy chief of staff for their role in the bid-rigging, Romley held a press conference to declare his intention to investigate Carey, based on Vasquez's scattershot accusations.

And the press bit, playing allegations of two-bit wrongdoing by Carey as though they were every bit as important as the multimillion-dollar bid-rigging Romley had ignored.

The county attorney could never have attempted such a bold, vindictive move if the press had not provided continuous protective cover, printing Vasquez's undocumented and often imaginary allegations without a trace of skepticism, treating her as a credible witness when there were many indications she was not.

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