Balls in the Air

Steely County Attorney Rick Romley's going, but he's not gone. He'd like to take the governor's office from Janet Napolitano

Actually, most of the departed veteran prosecutors left for more money in other agencies, the judiciary, or private practice. It's a sad state of affairs when lawyers processing misdemeanor cases in city courts or shuffling paperwork as court commissioners make more money than deputy county attorneys trying murder and molestation cases.

Romley does remain as deeply regimented (some would say rigid) now as he was as a young Marine squad leader, something supporters and detractors naturally view in radically different ways.

"Rick grew a lot in the job," says chief deputy Paul Ahler, who was Romley's top aide for a dozen years. "He's focused and forceful and passionate, and he has a temper when things don't go how he wants. But whether you agree with him or not, he's a very tough guy, physically and mentally. What he went through in Vietnam steeled him for the rest of his life. He's still a Marine, and he's not afraid of much."

Rick Romley went to war with then-bishop Thomas O'Brien, seen here at his criminal trial earlier this year.
Rick Romley went to war with then-bishop Thomas O'Brien, seen here at his criminal trial earlier this year.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Romley haven't exactly been bosom buddies.
Jackie Mercandetti
Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Romley haven't exactly been bosom buddies.

The 55-year-old Romley has tackled the most difficult cases, even when looking the other way may have been politically advantageous, such as with Lovelace.

An even more profound example came during his first term, when he overrode the highly publicized wishes of then-sheriff Tom Agnos and top members of his own staff by asking a judge to dismiss the cases of four Tucson men who'd confessed to killing nine people at a West Valley monastery.

That case was fraught with problems, including coerced confessions and an utter lack of physical evidence. But if Romley had been wrong, and the Tucsonans had been involved, voters surely would have booted him out of office at their first opportunity if he hadn't resigned before then.

But he was right. The Tucson guys had nothing to with the murders; the killers were a pair of West Valley teens for whom an armed robbery had gone bad.

Though Rick Romley hasn't been in a courtroom for years, he was smart enough to surround himself with able top lieutenants for whom potential political fallout rarely was a prime concern in deciding how to proceed with a given case.

An exception has been special assistant Barnett Lotstein, a political apparatchik who is almost universally disrespected by his colleagues at the office.

"Barnett brings a different dimension to the discussion," Romley says by way of defense. "He has a greater astuteness on political things than anyone I've met."

Lotstein was involved in one of the most embarrassing episodes of the Romley years, a civil rights lawsuit filed by Elizabeth and Howard Sukenic, both former employees of the County Attorney's Office.

Elizabeth was the office's onetime director of community relations. She and her prosecutor husband in 2001 alleged that Romley and others had retaliated against them after she'd accused Lotstein of making sexual advances toward her.

A jury early this year awarded Elizabeth Sukenic $16,100, a pittance considering she'd asked for $1 million. But the panel agreed that Romley had retaliated against her, even while concluding that Lotstein hadn't sexually harassed her.

Romley has won his share of other enemies, some who don't object to being quoted by name.

"He's run that office by heavy intimidation, and the people there don't have any flexibility in what they do," says Jack MacIntyre, an ex-deputy county attorney who now is Joe Arpaio's director of intergovernmental affairs.

That may sound ironic coming from someone who works for a sheriff not known to tolerate dissension in his own ranks.

Yet MacIntyre's venom doesn't approach that of a man who mailed this screed to New Times:

"Ric [sic] Romley is a shameless self-promoter. He is a self-serving narcissist who will cynically destroy American ideals if it promotes/protects his political future."

The author was ex-Phoenix abortion doctor Brian Finkel, writing from his home in the sex-offender unit at the state prison cell in Florence. Earlier this year, Romley's prosecutors won convictions against Finkel on 22 counts of sexually abusing patients.

Finkel and MacIntyre hold the minority view when it comes to assessing Rick Romley.

Says Gary Lowenthal, an Arizona State University law professor who wrote Down and Dirty Justice: A Chilling Journey Into the Dark World of Crime and the Criminal Courts about his months-long sabbatical as a prosecutor for Romley:

"Rick knew I didn't share his political philosophy, but he openly let me look at his office, no holds barred. This from a guy who demanded absolute loyalty from his employees -- absolute -- and isn't known for taking criticism well. Though I have disagreements with some of Rick's policies, he was a very good county attorney, and we were very fortunate to have him."

It's the late morning of September 15 as Rick Romley pulls into the parking lot of the McCormick Ranch Golf Club.

He's about 10 minutes early for his appearance before the Palo Verde Republican Women's Club. As he walks with his cane toward the banquet room -- he moves remarkably well -- Romley says he expects to face a friendly group.

"It's a little different over in the East Valley," he says, smiling, referring to the archconservative leanings of many Mesa-area politicos who abhor Romley's position on abortion and his other moderations.

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