Burning Sensation

Firefighters union boss Billy Shields screwed up. Now, he's ticked off Phoenix's most powerful law firm

Billy Shields is a heavyweight in every sense of the word.

He's a strapping firefighter who personifies the Irish charm that goes with the stereotype. He's also big politically. For the past nine years, he's run the United Phoenix Firefighters Association, widely regarded as the most powerful union in the state. Politicians from Chandler to Peoria kiss his ring and court his clout.

But this spring, Shields made the very stupid mistake of picking a fight with one of the few institutions in town as big as himself. Lewis and Roca isn't just the law firm that gave Governor Janet Napolitano her start. It's also the firm that successfully fought the landmark Miranda case — we all have the right to be silent, believe it or not, because of them.

Matt Mignanelli

I doubt Shields meant to take on Lewis and Roca. He was trying to save face — and actually coming after New Times. I'd written a story that revealed some unpleasant truths about Shields' union presidency, a story suggesting that Shields had sold out his own firefighters to help a friend's for-profit venture ("Backdraft," March 15).

Shields didn't talk to me, but after the story came out, he was yapping all over town, claiming that I'd based my reporting on forged documents.

The problem? The documents in question had been drawn up by an attorney who works for Lewis and Roca. Steve Hart is the former director of the Arizona Gaming Department, a perfect example of the political heavy-hitters who work — or have worked — at the firm. He discussed the documents with me, on the record.

And just because those documents are damaging to Shields doesn't mean they're fake. Believe me: They're real.

Think about it. The lawyers at Lewis and Roca aren't back-alley brawlers. It's a blue-chip firm. There's no way a lawyer like Steve Hart would stake his name on a fake document just to "get" Billy Shields.

To understand why the truth hurt Shields so badly, you need to understand a little more about the supposed forgeries.

The documents show that Pat Cantelme, who ran the firefighters union for 20 years before Shields took over, was hoping to start an ambulance company, Newco, in partnership with Southwest Ambulance. Newco would handle some of the work currently handled by Phoenix city firefighters, according to a preliminary statement drawing up the terms of the venture.

That meant taking some work handled by city firefighters and giving it to a for-profit company — something you'd think a municipal union would be against. (In fact, as union president, Cantelme led a campaign to require that only a change in the city charter would allow firefighting and ambulance work to go to private companies.)

But Hart, who was representing Southwest Ambulance in its negotiations with Cantelme, told me that he spoke with Shields about the matter "at least" two times. The document in question shows that Shields was even given a copy of the preliminary "statement of terms" for the venture.

So, according to Hart, Shields knew what Cantelme was up to. Yet Shields never bothered to say anything about it to his union — the very guys whose jobs would be affected. And Shields certainly never sounded the alarms. Instead, he continued to defend Cantelme.

It's shocking.

No wonder Shields tried to cover up his actions by slandering Hart and, indirectly, Hart's law firm. Shields had to lie to save face.

The evidence against him is just too damning.

As it turns out, though, Shields really screwed up.

The whole thing would have gone away if Shields had kept his mouth shut. Instead, he started talking, and a small controversy has become a legal nightmare.

In the week after our story came out, Shields' executive vice president and heir apparent, Pete Gorraiz, addressed the subject at a union meeting. Gorraiz "let all the members present examine this fraudulent document that was cut and pasted . . . to make Billy and the [executive board] look like we had lied," according to the official minutes. "This is what we are up against: People want to divide us so bad that they tried to make up false incriminating evidence."

At the next month's meeting, Shields himself raised the issue. He even claimed that he was meeting with County Attorney Andrew Thomas to "get to the bottom of this letter and possible extortion charges against those involved." (It's not clear what he meant by "extortion." A spokesman for Thomas declined comment.)

In a letter to Shields last month, Lewis and Roca demanded a retraction of the minutes. It claimed "incalculable" damages. And the firm threatened to pursue all its "legal rights and seek all remedies under law."

If I were Shields, I'd have been freaked out.

And maybe is. He's announced his retirement, effective this week.

Shields wasn't supposed to leave for another year, but he's suffering from health problems, according to the farewell letter he sent union leadership. He needs time to take care of himself, he wrote, and get treatment.

Shields very publicly suffered through surgery for a brain tumor several years ago. I hope this isn't something nearly so awful.

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2 comments
Cat-o-Nine
Cat-o-Nine

how many times has miss fenske written about shields? too many. "strapping firefighter who personifies the Irish charm that goes with the stereotype." she should ask him out on a date.

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