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

Triggered by the Norberg case, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into Arpaio's jail conditions. That investigation, which started while Janet Napolitano was United States Attorney for the district of Arizona, ended in October 1997 without criminal charges filed.

By then, Jack MacIntyre, who had been Romley's representative at the sheriff's office for years, had gone to work for Arpaio after providing legal advice to detention officers and others who were potential criminal defendants in the Norberg case.

Romley later had to stop his own investigation into the Norberg incident after he learned of the legal conflict of interest involving MacIntyre.

The Vietnam-era Rick Romley.
The Vietnam-era Rick Romley.
Romley congratulates his top aide, Paul Ahler, at a recent function.
Jackie Mercandetti
Romley congratulates his top aide, Paul Ahler, at a recent function.

"That was one of my greatest disappointments," Romley says of his aborted Norberg investigation. "I really did believe people had committed a crime there, so I started up my own investigation aggressively. I had ordered Jack not to talk to those sheriff's employees, but we found out later that he had anyway. That boxed me in legally. I think he did it to get me off the case because Joe was scared to death after I put together a topnotch team to look into it."

MacIntyre says Romley's memory "is extremely deficient on this issue."

Romley says he turned over his investigative materials to the U.S. Attorney's Office, then headed by Napolitano.

"What pisses me off is that I gave [the AG's Office] boxes of material, and it all came back with them saying, essentially: Not enough here!'" he recalls. "We had sealed all the boxes, I think seven. But [Napolitano's investigators] hadn't even broken the seal of one box. I mean, somebody died, and nobody should be above the law."

MacIntyre says he quit Romley's office in late 1996 after "Rick told me he wanted me to be his eyes and ears in the sheriff's office. That is, asking [me] to be a spy against someone [Arpaio] who trusted [me] and with whom [I was] trying to establish the repose of an attorney-client relationship."

That's a lie, says Romley, who maintains he learned a painful lesson about engaging in the arena of public opinion with the Arpaio publicity machine.

"I know I came out too hard on Joe publicly," he says, "but I was very offended by his imagery of a personality conflict versus doing what's right because somebody died. Joe did a masterful job of turning it into a personal issue as compared with it being a legitimate investigative issue."

Romley admits that "the Norberg case created situations with the two agencies that even now we haven't overcome. The staffs work pretty well together, but we still have to tell him no on a lot of things."

Romley chuckles when asked how he's interacted with Arpaio at subsequent gatherings of Valley law enforcement authorities.

"We don't see Joe at meetings of substance," he says. "I think his next four years are going to be extraordinarily difficult. We're into raw wood now. The veneer's off and there's going to be a greater scrutiny of everything he does. I sincerely hope that Andy [Thomas] has the backbone to deal with Joe, because it's not easy."

In the 1990s, Rick Romley injected himself into initiatives that transcended that of a normal chief county prosecutor.

He lent support to Phoenix neighborhood activists in their war against graffiti and slumlords, and won a ton of mostly positive publicity along the way.

And Romley embraced the hate-crime legislation that stumbled its way through the statehouse during that time, even appearing on radio shows with Joel Breshin, then the liberal Anti-Defamation League's regional director.

"At the time, no one knew how many hate crimes there were around here, and no one really cared," Breshin recalls. "We found out that police departments around the Valley weren't enforcing hate crimes equally, and I met with Rick and [former prosecutor] Jim Blake to figure out what to do. We needed an authority to get behind us, and Rick was the man."

Current ADL regional director Bill Straus says he thought at the time that support for hate-crime legislation would be universal.

"Man, was I wrong!" says Straus, who had a radio show on KTAR-AM 620 at the time. "I was the only talk-show host in town who supported the new law. Lots of legislators were against it. I invited Rick and Joel on to talk about it. Rick said he'd do whatever it took, and he was true to his word. People tell me he's just too political, but that's not the way I see it. I always got the feeling that Rick just wanted to make his hometown a little better."

By then, Barnett Lotstein had become a special assistant to Romley after more than 15 years at the Attorney General's Office. His role with Romley would be akin to Karl Rove's in the George W. Bush White House, but with a crucial difference:

Most accounts describe political consultant Rove as respected by those in Bush's inner circle for his relentless political acumen.

Lotstein's reputation in the upper reaches of the County Attorney's Office has been that of an overpaid toady who must possess a secret videotape of Romley engaging in an unnatural sex act to have risen to such power. (Andy Thomas has offered Lotstein a similar job in his administration, which raises yet new questions.)

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