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

And Carey was adamant that the donations be accepted for a variety of purposes.

Tom Augherton, chief of administration for the attorney general, says he witnessed Carey instructing fund raisers to solicit for the Event Fund at large, not just one particular function.

The largest contributor associated with the MLK luncheon is David Wright of the Arizona Bank.

The confusion within the Attorney General's Office is reflected in Wright's checks, which are made out to both the luncheon and the Event Fund.

"I am getting old and can't remember everything," explains Wright. "I am unable to remember discussing surpluses in the Martin Luther King account to be transferred to other purposes within the Attorney General's Office. Had I received that request, I would not have had a problem in supporting other good government activities of the Attorney General's Office."

This disagreement, though petty in scope, armed County Attorney Romley with just enough leverage to launch one of his office's longest and most expensive investigations, a probe whose target was the prosecutor's political rival Rob Carey.

Once Arizona belatedly recognized the MLK holiday, the attorney general continued to sponsor the civil rights luncheon, largely because Tucson itself had no official celebration.

Scholarships for minority students were an afterthought, added one year after the luncheons began. They were a minuscule $1,500 of the overall $15,000 budget for the lunch.

In any case, when Deborah Vasquez raised her questions, the scholarships had already been distributed after the 1995 affair.

Vasquez's allegations notwithstanding, not a single penny in scholarship money was diverted to the attorney general's retreat, an event that provides staff with continuing legal education.

In fact, even a skeptical review of spending from the attorney general's trust fund would conclude only that there had been a short-term shift of a small amount of money from one office event to another. Neither the MLK luncheon nor the minority scholarship program was actually shorted of money.

Carey explained in the earliest articles on the dispute that the 1995 MLK luncheon had a small carry-forward balance on the books. As in each of the previous years, Carey's people would need to go out and raise more funds for the next luncheon and round of scholarships, but that was almost a year down the road.

In the meantime, part of the balance left from the 1995 MLK luncheon--a balance in the trust fund that supported many sideline activities of the AG's Office--was used to pay a pressing past-due bill from the office retreat.

Despite the steady press references to beer and karaoke, that now-notorious attorney general's retreat bore little resemblance to MTV's Spring Break.

All lawyers in Arizona are required to attend classroom sessions on a yearly basis as part of the State Bar's Continuing Legal Education program.

Rather than leave it to his staffers to attend education classes on their own, Woods put together a yearly program that offered accredited classes during a two-day period. Even lunch breaks were taken up with speakers such as Arizona's Supreme Court justices.

The retreat topics included such toe tappers as "Oral Appellate Advocacy: Practical Learning Experience," with judges Frederick J. Martone, Philip G. Espinosa and Jefferson L. Langford sitting on the panel with two assistant attorneys general.

Yes, some beer was consumed in the evening and, for some inexplicable reason relating to lawyer morale, a $250 karaoke machine was used one night.

But when questioned, the manager at the Tucson hotel where the retreat was held remembered the prosecutors as one of the quietest groups she'd ever hosted.

"I went to all the functions," recalls Pam Traficanti, with Ventana Canyon resort. "I know how hard they worked. It was not a kegger. Nobody got rowdy. And they consumed much less alcohol than most groups. On a scale of one to ten, they were barely a two or a three in terms of partying."

And all of the prosecutors who attended wrote out checks to the attorney general's trust fund, the same account that held the MLK luncheon monies. The checks were meant to cover the entire cost of the retreat.

In 1995, however, two things happened that had never occurred before: The MLK luncheon paid for itself and even had a small surplus for the next year; and, for the first time, the AG's retreat showed a slight deficit.

When unanticipated bills from the retreat came in, Carey authorized their payment from the attorney general's trust fund, which contained both the MLK and the retreat monies.

Despite the impression from news accounts that tens of thousands of dollars were thus squandered, a final accounting showed a total in late bills from the retreat of $2,600.

After Flatten's first story, others dribbled out in the Tribune during the next month. No one else in the media paid much attention.

Then, on July 11, a bombshell went off in the Arizona press.
The attorney general announced that Governor Symington's accounting firm, Coopers & Lybrand, now admitted improper contact with the governor's deputy chief of staff, George Leckie, during the process that awarded Coopers a $1.6 million Project SLIM contract. While denying it had violated the law, the giant accounting firm agreed to pay the state a whopping $725,000 to avoid further civil or criminal prosecution. The Big Six accounting firm also agreed to forgo any work for state government for two years. Leckie later agreed to a similar settlement with the attorney general.

The import of the story was enormous.
The press made little effort to explain just how important it was.


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