End of a Smear

County Attorney Richard Romley thought he had parlayed a trivial investigation into the resignation of one of his chief political rivals. But Attorney General Grant Woods decided that his top assistant would not be sacrificed to prosecutorial overreaching

Attorney General Grant Woods and County Attorney Richard Romley collided at opposing press conferences last Wednesday, slamming together like a pair of sumo wrestlers with microphones sandwiched between their sweaty haunches.

The sound from the slap of angry flesh inspired alarmed stories in the daily press and endless argument on talk radio; the grappling prosecutors provided the sort of television footage that sends producers into near-sexual fits of ecstasy.

In front of God and country, Woods agreed to repay $24,000 of donated money that had supposedly been misused during four years, plus fines and interest. He also accepted the resignation of first assistant attorney general Rob Carey, who had been in charge of those funds. Less than 24 hours later, Woods announced that Romley's lengthy investigation of the Attorney General's Office had been an outrageous political vendetta.

It was a payback, said Woods, for Carey's criticism of the county attorney's failure in the Project SLIM investigation, a case that Carey broke wide open.

Woods then stunned the assembled press corps by rehiring Carey.
In Macy's downtown window, Romley displayed a self-righteous patriarch's fury, revealing--some might even say reveling in--the extent to which he had abused his prosecutorial powers while seeking to eliminate Carey, a rival, from the political stage.

Romley didn't just lay out his list of alleged abuses of private contributions to the attorney general's Event Fund--although these minor irregularities in accounting for non-taxpayer funds were the only "wrongdoing" the county attorney came close to confirming during ten months of intensive investigation.

The county attorney also included in his press packet a list of investigations his office had conducted about Carey that were entirely unrelated to the allegation of Event Fund misuse. Romley even boasted that he examined whether Carey might have fixed a parking ticket.

That these other investigations were incredibly expensive and failed to prove wrongdoing by Carey or anyone else in the Attorney General's Office did not seem to bother Romley or the press, which repeated some of the county attorney's least-supportable allegations as revealed truth.

Romley did squeeze a settlement out of the Attorney General's Office. It included the admission by Woods and Carey that, during four years, approximately $24,000 had been misused from the Event Fund, a repository of money donated by private parties to support sideline activities of theAG'sOffice.

In their press conference, Woods and Carey insisted that the $24,000 figure is grossly inflated. But, they said, returning the money was a small price to pay to end the county attorney's witch hunt--a witch hunt that had crippled the AG's administrative office by demanding a warehouse full of paperwork that had to be pulled by hand.

The county attorney, however, maintained that this mountain of evidence showed that the large corporations and law firms donating money to the attorney general had been deceived. Those donors, Romley concluded, had been defrauded; they had been told the money would be spent on one specific event, when, in fact, the money was spent elsewhere.

Romley's charges of corruption are absurd.

Richard Romley's investigation of Rob Carey uncovered very little of real importance. But it has inflicted costs on a lot of people, including every taxpayer in Arizona.

Even as Romley announced the settlement that ended his probe, onlookers marveled at its estimated million-dollar price tag. But that number is only a guess. Romley's financial records on the cost of the ten-month witch hunt, which run to 800 pages, only became available at press time. Those records do not reflect the corresponding budgets of the auditor general, the attorney general and the three outside counsel on the defense team, all of which cost also was borne by taxpayers.

The aftermath of the county attorney's probe showed clearly that this incredible waste of public money was largely inspired by Romley's desire to skewer Rob Carey.

The investigation's end also illustrated how Carey's attempts at cleverness can create mistrust and even aid his enemies.

Shortly after the settlement with Romley was announced, Carey admitted, for the first time, that he had lied about the role of his former secretary Deborah Vasquez in the rescue of a 5-year-old multiple amputee from kidnapers (see related story on page 28).

Carey's deception was not germane to Romley's investigation of alleged fiscal mismanagement. But the kidnaping episode was crucial to understanding why Vasquez told amazing, often fanciful tales of Carey's wrongdoing to Romley and the press.

And Carey's clever untruthfulness in regard to the kidnaping was the sort of slick, and ultimately foolish, sleight of hand that critics have pointed to when they explained their distaste for his management style.

It's no wonder his enemies whistled while they worked at spit-roasting his carcass.

But even if Carey has an arrogant, Slick Willie side--and he does--his lawyerly evasions in no way justified Romley's expensive, wide-ranging investigation.

After all was said and done, that investigation proved not one whit of real wrongdoing.

Not a single penny in taxpayer money was wasted by the Attorney General's Office. All of the funds Romley had investigated were donated by businesses.

Not a single corporation or law firm has stepped forward and complained that it had been ripped off.

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