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

The cost of such dilettante journalism has been incalculable.
Romley's staff has roamed the entire state of Arizona, expanding in unimaginable fashion upon Vasquez's flimsy allegations. In fact, Romley was still dragooning witnesses before his grand jury, hoping to find something, anything, that could be pinned upon Carey, when a settlement was announced this week.

In the settlement negotiated with Romley, the Attorney General's Office agreed to repay just over $30,000--including nearly $7,000 in interest and penalties--in trust funds allegedly mismanaged during a four-year period.

The agreement will see $12,000 set aside for minority scholarships; $17,000 reimbursed to the attorney general's Event Fund; and $4,000 paid to cover the expenses of Romley's investigation.

After nearly a year of Romley's top people rooting through the Attorney General's Office, at the same time the auditor general was also crawling all over Woods and Carey, the results are paltry.

Not a penny in taxpayer funds was wasted by the Attorney General's Office, and no evidence of Woods or Carey benefiting individually was uncovered; in fact, neither prosecutor will have to pay back any cash personally.

The worst that can be said is that they were not very diligent recordkeepers for funds that they had gone out and raised themselves.

While the $7,500 yearly average of "wrongdoing" out of the $54 million the Attorney General's Office handles annually might seem to a reasonable person to be a minuscule level of accounting irregularity, it was enough to put Carey's head on the chopping block.

Although Carey admitted no wrongdoing, his resignation was demanded by Romley and expected at press time.

So the Attorney General's Office has been needlessly crippled. Carey's public career has been unfairly vaporized. No significant wrongdoing has been shown.

Yet not a single editorial writer has asked of Mr. Romley: Have you no sense of decency?

When Deborah Vasquez quit her job at the Attorney General's Office, her exit strategy included a plan to destroy Rob Carey and Grant Woods.

As she packed up the personal items from her desk, she told a colleague that she would have her revenge against Carey.

"She kept saying to me as she got her things together that this was not the end of it," secretary Sherri Van Horsen recalls, "that he was going to pay. That she was gonna make him regret this.

"And as I walked her out to her car, she said something to the effect that she was going to embarrass him in front of his friends and family."

Vasquez fled the AG's Office after she was chastised by Carey for handling the kidnaping of a 5-year-old multiple amputee without informing anyone else at the office. Before handing in her resignation, however, Vasquez said she sought advice from Governor Fife Symington's staff. She wanted help finding a job, and she wanted someone to listen to her grievances against Carey.

Vasquez talked to the governor's staff just 48hours after Carey had recommended to Woods that Symington's top lieutenants be prosecuted for their roles in the Project SLIM scandal. The governor's staff knew full well that the investigation was coming to a head.

As Carey and his prosecutors tightened the noose on Symington and his bid-rigging cronies, fate handed the governor's staff a knife with which to cut the rope.

Vasquez said she was promptly hustled off toSymington's ally, County Attorney Richard Romley.

The heart of Vasquez's allegations concerned a trust fund in the Attorney General's Office that had been maintained by Carey.

Beginning in 1992, donations for the fund were solicited from large corporations and major law firms throughout the state. The monies paid for border conference seminars, staff luncheons, employee appreciation awards and civic affairs not included in the Legislature's annual appropriation of tax funds to the office.

At the end of May, Vasquez gave a statement to Romley regarding funding abuses allegedly committed by Carey. After referring her charges to the auditor general for investigation, the prosecutor sat on the case.

Like Symington, Romley knew the terrible judgment of the attorney general's investigation of Project SLIM was about to be announced. The explosion of that announcement would at least embarrass both officials. Symington's closest associates would be implicated in bid-rigging, and Romley's SLIM investigati>>>>>on would be shown as either incompetent or a whitewash.

With Deborah Vasquez, however, the county attorney could fight back; he had a hand grenade and would decide when to pull the pin.

Vasquez's statement was quickly leaked to the Mesa Tribune's Mark Flatten, who ran with the story on June 8 under the headline: "AG Misused Money, Former Aide Claims."

Beginning a pattern that would continue for nine months--until Carey's career was zipped into a body bag--Flatten's story would combine wild distortions and half-truths with good, old-fashioned journalism.

The tone of the media reports was captured in the opening paragraph of Flatten's account.

"A former administrative assistant to Attorney General Grant Woods' chief aide has accused his office of dipping into a Martin Luther King luncheon fund to bankroll an office retreat that included beer and a karaoke machine."

This suggestion--that a party-hearty attorney general was abusing a fund meant to provide minority scholarships--became the popular image of the Vasquez allegations throughout the ensuing coverage. That slant was solidified early on when the Arizona Republic's Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, Steve Benson, depicted the retreat as "Woods' Kegger."

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