Over a period of time, I have become more than just skeptical of County Attorney Richard Romley and his partner in the AzScam sting, then-Police Chief Ruben Ortega. Nothing personal.
It's just that after years of covering these two, it is my opinion that both Romley and Ortega are more concerned with headlines than with law enforcement.
Last week the professional turned very personal.
Last week I read AzScam transcripts that document an effort to set me up.
From the first moment AzScam became public, Ortega and Romley said they had solid intelligence that state legislators were on the take. It wasn't a matter of entrapping local officials, far from it; Ortega and Romley told us the sting was necessary to root out politicians whose votes were for sale.
Dipping into the bottomless cash pool of drug forfeitures, for which there is no public accounting, Ortega and Romley set up in business a professional hoodlum named Joseph Stedino. The police chief and the prosecutor spent nearly $1 million to lure politicians into their snare.
Portraying himself as a front man for casino interests, Stedino opened up an office in Phoenix. Soon he was passing out stacks of cash to legislators who would vote for legalized gambling in Arizona.
Legislators were videotaped selling their votes.
Stedino, of course, did not know anyone at the statehouse. He relied upon people like Gary Bartlett.
A fringe player in political circles, Bartlett had a keen taste for blackjack and craps. He was also fond of boasting about all the friends he had in powerful places.
In January 1990, Stedino wrote his handlers: If this man [Bartlett] is telling 10 percent truths, he is talking about major political corruption... . I believe this man will open doors in Arizona politics that will fire the shot heard round the world if we go with him." Dazzled at the prospect of firing a shot heard round the world, Ortega and Romley never determined if Bartlett was a barroom braggart or a real player.
Stedino was given the green light to hire Bartlett for $1,000 a week; together they would sell the scheme of legalized gambling in Arizona. While Bartlett and Stedino were setting up shop, they met at the Black Angus restaurant at 2200 East Camelback. Stedino wore a body bug to the meeting on February 8, 1990.
Later, Detective Gary Ball from the Organized Crime Bureau listened to Stedino's tape and recorded the following remarks.
...Bartlett and the leasing agent arrived at the Black Angus. The source [Stedino], Bartlett and the leasing agent talked about office space at various locations around town.
When the leasing agent left, Bartlett told the source [Stedino] that he was sick again and has not been able to work as hard on the office problem as he wants to. The source [Stedino] did pay Bartlett his first week's salary prior to leaving the restaurant.
The source [Stedino] asked Bartlett if he had heard back from [Representative] Don Kenney. Bartlett said he had not heard from Kenney yet... . The source [Stedino] asked Bartlett if he knew a [Representative] Bobby Raymond or Mike Lacey. Bartlett said he was good friends with Bobby Raymond but did not know Mike Lacey other than he has the New Times." Representatives Kenney and Raymond were eventually sentenced to five- and two-year prison terms, respectively, for selling their votes.
But why would Ortega and Romley's front man, Joseph Stedino, try to suck me into AzScam?
Ortega and Romley's story was that the sting was launched to expose corrupt legislators. Law enforcement records subsequently revealed that the allegations of corruption originated with Gary Bartlett. But it isn't Bartlett who puts my name into play; it's law enforcement's undercover agent, Stedino, who pumps Bartlett about me.
I am not a legislator. I am not a lobbyist. I don't have a single friend who is a legislator or a lobbyist. I have never written about, nor do I endorse, legalized gambling in Arizona; in fact, I seldom use my column to comment on any legislation. Prior to the publicity that engulfed AzScam, I don't think I'd ever heard of Gary Bartlett.
And, obviously, he'd never met me. Nor had Joseph Stedino. Brought in from out of state by Richard Romley, Stedino knew nothing about me.
We know now from records that have been released that Stedino's every step was stage-managed by Ortega and Romley. Romley personally worked with the FBI to import Stedino to Arizona from Reno, Nevada. When not directly involved, Ortega was kept briefed on the smallest of details. At one point, prosecutors, who were hidden in an adjoining room watching Stedino work a vulnerable legislator, telephoned into Stedino's office. As Stedino looked his prey in the eye, he was coached over the office telephone on how best to entice the politician into breaking the law.
With this sort of attention to detail, and given Romley and Ortega's hands-on involvement in this case, it is not credible that Stedino accidentally came up with my name.
Which one of Stedino's handlers, Ortega or Romley, tried to tie me to AzScam?
Of course, Richard Romley, as he always does when confronted with an embarrassing question, has refused to come to the telephone. Inquiries are met with silence. Ortega has retired. A spokesman for the police department refuses comment.
So there will be no official response as to why Joseph Stedino thought it important to get next to me.
But there is an explanation. Stedino's meeting with Bartlett occurred on February 8, 1990. On that very date, I was in the middle of writing a series about Police Chief Ruben Ortega and County Attorney Richard Romley.
In his State of the Union speech that January, President George Bush declared war on crack. In his television appearance, he waved a bag of the drug in viewers' faces and said this was a war America must win. After his appearance, Bush told reporters that if they wanted to see where the battle against crack was being won, they should look to Phoenix.
President Bush could not have been more wrong.
Ortega and Romley gained the White House's recognition for their Do Drugs. Do Time" program. But far from being an all-out war on crack, the Do Drugs. Do Time" program focuses primarily on casual marijuana smokers. Of the hundreds of people arrested and marched through the drill, only one had used crack at the time of Bush's speech.
Far from waging an innovative campaign against crack, County Attorney Richard Romley actually made money from a bar that was legendary for distribution of the drug. Police Chief Ruben Ortega's department protected this arrangement.
In a five-part series, I examined Ortega and Romley's connection with the Valley's best-known crack outlet. The articles revealed that:
County Attorney Richard Romley maintained a hidden interest for years in Club 902. He was paid nearly $1,000 a month by the owner against Romley's lien on the bar. By law, Romley was required to reveal his financial stake in the saloon; he did not comply with the law until his position was exposed.
According to Lieutenant Ron Hergert of the Phoenix Police Department, Club 902 and its patrons-the officer described them as Ôdirtbags"-were infamous for selling crack.
Romley, the leader in the war on drugs, said he was shocked to hear that his bar was regarded as a notorious" crack outlet.
Arizona law requires the Phoenix police to file a report with the state Department of Liquor Licenses and Control each and every time the police make an arrest or are called to the premises. The state liquor board can only revoke a bar's license if the police have passed along enough duplicates of their paperwork to indicate that there is a problem. Although street-level cops continued to make frequent busts at Club 902, police brass did not forward a single narcotics-related complaint on the bar to state authorities once Romley was elected.
In fact, the state file on Club 902 contained a mere 12 write-ups-all on minor charges-over a period of several years. But in 1989 alone, the cops made 127 arrests at the bar. More than half involved narcotics charges. By not forwarding this incredible record to the state, Ortega's people were protecting Romley.
The day after Romley's investment in Club 902 was exposed, the bar's owner attempted to transfer the liquor license to a bartender at the saloon. The barkeep, Cary Emma Davis, described herself as a family friend of Romley's. The state liquor board characterized this move as a heavy-handed attempt to shield the bar's true owners from enforcement action.
Nonetheless, administrators at the Phoenix Police Department promptly signed an affidavit approving this phony transfer.
When outraged neighbors of Club 902 discovered Romley's ties to the bar, they demanded that he divest himself of the financial interest. He refused.
Throughout the controversy, Chief Ortega maintained that he saw no problem with Romley's role in Club 902.
When the extent of the arrests at Club 902 was reported, the chief's office attempted to cover its tracks by lying. Referring to the file that contained the 127 arrest reports from the previous year, the chief's spokesman attempted to give the impression that the paperwork has been scattered throughout the department and only recently assembled by hand.
I would imagine that because of all the interest in that location, and because of the liquor-control interest...there's been a lot of hand-searching done to put that together," said Ortega's spokesman, Sergeant Andy Anderson.
In reality, the department's records bureau maintained a comprehensive file on Club 902, as it does on all bars. The problem wasn't clerical. The problem was that the police brass refused to turn over the records to the liquor control board.
On February 7, 1990, I reported that state liquor chief Hugh Ennis had read enough. He announced that he was moving to close Club 902.
The very next day, Ortega and Romley's agent, Joseph Stedino, asked Bartlett if he knew Mike Lacey.
As I look over what I have just written, I cannot escape a feeling of self-conscious awkwardness. I do not wish to portray myself as a victim. I think what Ortega and Romley attempted to do with me is pretty obvious. But I certainly don't want AzScam, even for a moment, to be looked at in terms of what might have happened to one journalist.
Eighteen people were indicted in AzScam, careers were ruined, lives were shattered.
All too easily, politicians took dirty money.
Whatever little faith people had in government prior to AzScam was shredded.
So there is more at play here than the clumsy attempt of a police chief and a prosecutor to go after a journalist.
The point is this: If Ortega and Romley would stoop to such behavior in the wake of negative publicity, what lengths would they go to in order to reap the sort of public relations bonanza associated with a shot heard round the world?"
If the legislators were easily corrupted, law enforcment was also relentless.
Two months after Bartlett went on the payroll, Stedino fired him. Bartlett was all big hat, no cattle." Despite his puffing about his connections with politicians on the take, Bartlett had not been able to put Stedino together with any legislators, let alone corrupt ones. Did Ortega and Romley drop their sting?
They did not. Ortega and Romley had a million-dollar budget with which to seduce officials. Eventually they figured they'd get someone to bite.
Yes, seven politicians took the money. They disgraced themselves.
But I'm of a mixed mind about how much corruption there ever was.
In another recent sting, the federal government spent two and a half years trying to convince a farmer in Nebraska to purchase child pornography.
Two and a half years.
Nine days ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the government's successful effort to induce criminal behavior in the law-abiding farmer was excessive.
Like the gentleman from Nebraska, the legislators had been law-abiding.
Ortega and Romley have not been able to show that prior to AzScam a single legislator took a single dirty dollar from a single lobbyist. Ever.
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This week jury selection continues for former state senator Carolyn Walker, the only politician who demanded a trial.
There is no excusing her greed, so coarse and palpable as it rolls across the AzScam videotapes that it makes you wince. Still, when law enforcement sets out to make criminals out of citizens, it's not surprising that some people are painfully human in their weakness.
And I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Gary Bartlett had known me.
With enough money and persistence, people like Ortega and Romley might humiliate of us, even you.