Phoenix police chief RUBEN ORTEGA probably thought he was America's chief warlord against dope back on February 17, 1988, when he lectured a federal DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION "user accountability" seminar in Phoenix. Instead, he wound up dragging the DEA into a still-simmering court fight over secrecy that makes him--and the DEA--look like dopes.
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During the closed-door meeting in '88, according to U.S. District Judge CHARLES L. HARDY, "Chief Ortega described several programs his department used or contemplated using to discourage the use of illegal drugs," including "a sting operation in which officers sold low-grade cocaine to users and then arrested them for possession." Just say no, huh?
Hardy's review of Ortega's performance is contained in an opinion he issued last week ordering the DEA to turn over a videotape of Ortega's speech to KTVK-TV and its former reporter ELIZABETH VARGAS. Hardy, who reviewed only an audio version (more on that later), dismissed all of the government's arguments for keeping the speech secret, saying, "The government has made no showing that disclosure of any of these programs would enable drug users to avoid detection and arrest." In fact, Hardy writes, "It would appear that public disclosure of any of these programs would tend to discourage illegal use of drugs."
What other "programs" was Ortega trying to keep secret? According to Hardy's written opinion: "Sending narcotic squad officers to `nicer cocktail lounges and social places,' conducting sting operations near schools to apprehend juvenile burglars who stole to obtain funds with which to purchase drugs, . . . keeping officers in a house after drugs had been seized pursuant to a search warrant to apprehend persons who might come there to purchase drugs, and a contemplated program of drug testing for all arrested persons who were believed to be users." By the way, one of Ortega's futile arguments for secrecy was that release of the tape would be "a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
Channel 3 went to federal court after it tried in vain to get a video of the speech through the Freedom of Information Act. What happened when Hardy told the DEA to let him see the tape before he decided whether to release it? "The government professes to be unable to locate the videotape," Hardy writes. "The court has listened to the audiotape." The most unbelievable part of the judge's opinion may be when he writes that "certain portions [of Ortega's speech] refer humorously to individuals . . . ." Ortega? Funny? Car 54, where are you?