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 charge was untrue. No scholarship money had been misappropriated. And there were many reasons to question whether Vasquez was a reliable source for such damaging allegations--reasons the Valley press simply ignored.

Tellingly, reporters never questioned Vasquez's version of how and why she left the Attorney General's Office.

Recapping why Vasquez was unemployed, Flatten explained that she had gotten into trouble at the Attorney General's Office for personally handling a hostage situation.

In his first article, Flatten wrote that Vasquez had taken a note about the abduction of Anna Ott to Carey, while he was in a closed-door meeting with Woods and other top staff to decide whether to pursue Symington's associates in the SLIM case.

Flatten quoted Vasquez as saying the prosecutor "just glared at me like I was totally stupid for interrupting the meeting, and he threw that message down and just looked at me and never stopped."

Which isn't what happened.
In the ensuing months, Vasquez would give two other explanations for her actions in the Anna Ott abduction.

Yet, in the ten months since Vasquez departed the Attorney General's Office, there has not been a single article in the Arizona press reporting on her wildly diverging accounts of her own behavior during the hostage crisis.

This inconsistency, and the failure to report on it, is important.
The Anna Ott abduction is what provided Vasquez such a sympathetic posture from which to launch her allegations against Careyand Woods. As the heroine who saved a 5-year-old tot whose legs and arms had been amputated, Vasquez was above reproach. And the tale of her rescue of the child from drug-abusing kidnapers guaranteed that readers who otherwise might have turned the page would pay attention to small suspected abuses of an internal account in the Attorney General's Office.

The refusal of journalists to look squarely at Vasquez's truthfulness in regard to the kidnaping has proved critical to the humiliation of Carey and Woods.

Much of what Vasquez alleged about the misuse of the AG's trust fund was initially difficult to verify, because witnesses had been summoned into the secrecy of Romley's grand jury (though the truth is that few reporters even bothered to try checking Vasquez's story). There were numerous leaks meant to incriminate Carey in the fund dispute, but a reporter seeking independent corroboration of the attorney general's claims of innocence would have been stymied. The County Attorney's Office was not likely to leak testimony favorable to Woods or Carey, and grand jury witnesses are generally prohibited from repeating their confidential testimony.

Because of this secrecy, Vasquez's version of the kidnaping, which was not part of Romley's investigation of the attorney general's fund, should have served as the first litmus test of her credibility.

Had reporters checked, they would have been astounded at the sheer variety of stories Vasquez offered to explain her actions on May 16, 1995, the day when she, acting entirely on her own, resolved the kidnaping of Anna Ott.

After Flatten wrote his first article, Vasquez changed her story, contending she had not informed Carey about the kidnaping until the situation was resolved.

At that time, Vasquez said the note she had taken in to Carey during the SLIM meeting dealt with another matter entirely, and because her boss had been brusque, she was afraid to interrupt the SLIM meeting a second time. According to Vasquez, Carey was tied up in the SLIM meeting all day and unavailable for consultation.

So when the Oakland police called her about the Ott kidnaping, she said, she had no choice but to handle it herself.

Even this second attempt by Vasquez to correct the record is a distortion.
Nine witnesses who were either in the SLIM meeting or working alongside Vasquez said in interviews for this story that Carey and the others took repeated breaks throughout the day, including a lengthy lunch in which Carey and other supervisors were available to the staff.

For whatever reason, Deborah Vasquez, a mere secretary, simply refused to let anyone know that she was involved in a high-stakes attempt to rescue a kidnap victim.

The criminal prosecutors in the Attorney General's Office and their licensed investigators approach a kidnaping as an extremely volatile situation requiring judgment, not good intentions.

Any cowboy with a badge could have pulled the kidnapers over, resulting in a 5year-old hostage, who was incapable of fleeing, caught in a crossfire.

John D. MacDonald, the director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the office of the attorney general, sits in an office across from where Vasquez was working. On May 16, he was at his desk and not part of the Project SLIM conference. He was available to help.

"Plus, the investigative division is right down the hall," says MacDonald. Many of them are former police officers.

"The first thing I'd have done, the only thing I'd have done, was give it to them."

Nor is this explanation 20-20 hindsight. It was office policy that such cases be routed to the criminal division.

This perspective was never reported in the press.
On September 13, four months after the Ott rescue, Vasquez changed her story a third time during a hearing on whether she would receive unemployment benefits.

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