WATCH YOUR MOUTH
To understand politics, you must first understand ambition and the thirst for power.
Take the case of Rick Romley. He was an anonymous figure when he joined the County Attorney's Office. His first supervisor was Michael Ryan, now a Superior Court judge.
The two did not hit it off. Ryan was cautious, always careful of a defendant's rights. Romley saw prosecuting as a way to attract attention to himself and boost his hopes for a political career.
Now Romley is finishing his first term as Maricopa County attorney. Ryan has become a respected judge-the jurist they turn to in the most controversial cases. It was Ryan who presided over the trial of former governor Evan Mecham. Ryan is now sitting in the AzScam case.
On this day, Romley and Ryan will meet again. The circumstances will be dramatic.
In the hallway outside Ryan's courtroom, I spot Romley. On his lips is the politician's small, tight smile.
For Romley, this expression, so close to a sneer, serves as a veil distancing him from friend and foe alike.
When the county attorney sees me, he raises his chin two full inches. His eyes are cold.
For most people, the raising of the chin is an act of defiance. But with Romley, it's nothing more than a nervous tic.
It has become a movement beyond Romley's control. Wherever Romley goes, his constantly rising chin travels along with him.
Romley's appearance, as always, is marked by his carefully groomed hair, held down with hair spray; his mustache; his cane; and, of course, the personal public relations man who is always at his side. Romley has become a character as stereotyped as any in The Pickwick Papers. Waiting now to enter Judge Michael Ryan's court with Romley is the press aide, Bill FitzGerald, a former radio man of unknown talents. FitzGerald's sole duties these days seem to be the handling of Romley's press relations.
FitzGerald has narrowed his workload considerably over the three years of Romley's term through a simple stratagem. FitzGerald denies access to the county attorney to any media people who have criticized Romley.
By this time, that leaves very few reporters acceptable to Romley and FitzGerald.
FitzGerald once told two reporters their presence was not allowed on the floor of the public building on which Romley's office is located.
You wrote bad things about him," FitzGerald said. You are not allowed here." I wonder what purpose FitzGerald's presence can possibly serve in the courtroom on this day. What favorable light can he possibly place on Romley's appearance on the witness stand?
We will all see and hear everything Romley says. There will be no room left for spin control.
Perhaps FitzGerald understands that ancient, enigmatic Armenian proverb: A thousand men cannot undress a naked man." Perhaps no matter how badly Romley has crossed the line, there will be no one brash enough to bring him down.
Romley has been summoned to appear this day by Judge Ryan just before the opening of the AzScam trial. He must answer questions under oath about prejudicial comments he made about former state senator Carolyn Walker at a meeting of more than 100 Republicans a few nights previous.
One of those present at the meeting, a lawyer named Robert Updike, reported that Romley had violated a court order by discussing Walker's case in a prejudicial manner on the eve of opening arguments in her case.
Here is how Romley reportedly behaved:
When it came Romley's turn to speak, he began by grinning and saying, `Well, I suppose you'd all like to know how AzScam's doing?'" Updike said.
Then Romley told the crowd how Murray Miller, Walker's lawyer, had tried to make a plea bargain that would have kept his client out of jail.
Romley added that Miller agreed to plead his client guilty to two felony charges if the prosecution would drop a bribery charge against her.
I refused to let my attorneys go along with that," Romley told the crowd.
It's difficult for nonlawyers to understand the seriousness of this infraction.
Romley already had the power to indict, which is, of course, tantamount to the power to destroy. And in the case of Walker, this is exactly what Romley had done.
But on the night in question, before a large crowd of Republican activists, many of whom were certain to spread the word, Romley suffered a total ethical collapse.
He publicly announced that Walker's attorney was admitting his client's guilt even before the trial started.
If this information reached any of the jurors, the effect on their ability to give Walker a fair trial would be deadly.
Here are portions of the Arizona Supreme Court rule about pretrial publicity:
A lawyer shall not make an extrajudicial statement he knows will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing a proceeding." And there is a further prohibition against spreading information the lawyer knows is likely to be inadmissible as evidence in a trial and would, if disclosed, create a substantial risk of prejudicing an impartial trial. ..." Romley was clearly guilty on both counts.
Was the legal system prepared to deal with Romley's obvious offenses?
Romley takes his seat on a bench just inside the low retaining wall that separates spectators from lawyers and defendants. FitzGerald, his ever-present caddie, sits next to him.
The courtroom is packed. But I see no staff members from the County Attorney's Office present. Are they perhaps fearful of repercussions if they are present to witness their boss's public dressing-down?
The defendants, Carolyn Walker and lobbyist Ron Tapp, are already seated. They sit at separate tables, each equipped with its own television monitor so they can see themselves perform with Joseph Stedino for the AzScam jury.
Judge Ryan wheels himself up the ramp behind the bench in his wheelchair. Both Ryan and Romley were wounded in Vietnam. Romley still walks with the aid of a cane.
Romley is called to the witness stand. Slowly, he makes his way through the maze of desks. Defense lawyers Murray Miller and Larry Debus watch him closely. So does Tapp. Walker does not look at Romley.
Romley sits down in the witness chair. He holds his cane in his right hand.
Judge Ryan leans toward Romley. It is not necessary to caution the witnesses in the courtroom to be quiet. The room is hushed.
Now, my information," Ryan says, is that you discussed this case at that meeting, is that correct?" As always, Romley's chin goes up a notch.
I discussed certain portions, not the facts of the case," he says.
All right, what did you discuss?" Romley turns to the judge.
If I might digress a bit," he says, to kind of give the character of the gathering that night?" All right," Ryan says. Clearly he is annoyed.
Romley suddenly seems more relaxed. He obviously enjoys being on stage.
Basically, this was a Republican District 25 meeting. They were voting on national delegates. Some individuals wanted an update on AzScam itself. Being the duly elected county attorney, I am aware of my ethical obligations as well as my duty as an elected county official.
I tempered my comments. I indicated that I had been told by my staff that Murray Miller had approached our office and attempted to make a plea offer. He would plead guilty on two counts. He would not plead to any bribery. ... I explained that I rejected those offers to my staff. That was the generalities of it." Are you aware of E.R. 3.6?" Ryan asks. His voice is grim.
The judge is referring to the state Supreme Court rule expressly forbidding lawyers from making this very kind of statement in public. This is not some arcane rule. It is basic to the practice of law. Every lawyer is aware of it.
There is still no sound in the courtroom. Romley has surprised everyone by admitting he actually had done everything that was charged.
But his answer to Ryan has been disingenuous. What we have seen is a false candor. Romley wasn't pushed into making a statement about Walker. He relished making it and would have made it if a dozen people with clubs had tried to prevent his making it.
Now Ryan speaks in a low, serious tone.
Plea negotiations at any time are very sensitive," Ryan says, especially in a case like this." Ryan hesitates. Defendants Walker and Tapp both lean forward in their chairs.
Fortunately," Ryan adds, none of the jurors read or heard about this case. You state in your affidavit that this was not a meeting in which you anticipated there was likelihood of what you said being printed.
I would think that at a meeting of political people you should have anticipated it would be reported secondhand to political reporters." Ryan shakes his head in disbelief.
I understand that you are running for office and you do have certain First Amendment rights.
However, these two people have a Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. We've got to balance these two out. I want you to be cognizant of the defendant's right to a fair trial and how your comments could jeopardize this whole case." Romley turns to Ryan. He refuses to let it end on this note.
I truly respect the judge's concern," Romley says. I have that concern as well." This is marvelous. Everything Romley has just finished admitting indicates he doesn't have the slightest care about the rights of the defendants in this case to a fair trial.
And now he has the brass to drone on in an attempt to extricate himself from a no-win position.
I think it's real important that I clarify the record to some degree. I did not make these comments just happenchance [sic]. They were thought through and I know most of the reporters within the Valley and I made a conscious effort to determine whether or not any reporters were there. There were only 35 people present.
I will abide by this ruling, your honor, but I also, as an elected official, have an obligation to constituents to try to inform them without jeopardizing this trial." Romley, the weasel that he is, has now succeeded in placing his own spin on the events of the meeting at the Republican headquarters.
He has pictured himself as the beleaguered county attorney facing a mob of people demanding answers about AzScam.
Margaret Updike, Robert Updike's wife, who was present at the meeting when Romley spoke, remembers one thing clearly.
There were nearly one hundred people present and it was Romley who first brought up AzScam," Updike says. I remember clearly that he opened by saying, `I suppose you're all interested in AzScam.'" Now we have the picture of Rick Romley, our very own Arsenio Hall, pumping up his constituency with tales of his AzScam triumphs. You get the picture. How many politicians has he sent to jail, and for how long? The crusading county attorney is by now on his feet, waiting for the applause to wash over him.
To Romley, AzScam has been his ticket to the next rung up the political ladder. Will he run for Congress? Will he run for attorney general? How long must he remain in the county attorney job before he can move on to one with more prestige and a higher salary?
Murray Miller is incensed.
Mr. Romley, you say there were 35 people present at this meeting. Isn't it a fact that there were at least 95 people who signed in for that meeting?"
Romley remains calm.
Mr. Miller, you have to remember that people were coming and going all the time." Jim Keppel, the chief deputy trying the case for the prosecution, jumps up to defend Romley from a further onslaught.
Your honor, this should not be a chance to bash the county attorney. The jurors indicated this morning they haven't seen anything about the statements. The court has instructed Mr. Romley how it wants him to proceed." Keppel's argument succeeds. If it had been left to Romley, he would have kept the argument festering.
Larry Debus stands up.
Your honor," Debus says, I think Mr. Romley should be ordered simply that this is a case in trial and he should not be able to speak or discuss it at all." Ryan looks over at Romley.
That is the appropriate course, Mr. Romley." I understand the rule very well, your honor," Romley says. I will abide by the ruling. I am sure it will be fair to all parties." Romley is still trying to worm his way out of this situation and appear to be a winner.
Ryan says one more thing to Romley. He says it gravely, in the tone judges usually reserve for drunks or burglars.
I don't want to see you in here again ...otherwise bring your toothbrush." The meaning is clear. Romley is on notice.
If the politically ambitious county attorney opens his mouth about this case one more time during the course of the trial, he will be clapped in jail for contempt of court.
Some day, long after the AzScam cases are a memory, students of the law will be amazed at the unfair tactics the prosecution got away with in this case.
The press served as its all-too-willing partner. Everyone was so eager to come down hard on crooked politicians that no one raised a voice to protect anyone's right to a fair trial.
Viewed through the prism of time, this will clearly be seen as a plan by Romley and then-police chief Ruben Ortega to revive their flagging careers.
Why else did they grant reporters total access to three long shelves of videotapes as well as the 39 notebooks full of transcripts?
The dissemination of damaging information was incredibly blatant. Video for nightly broadcasts was actually supplied directly to the television stations by a direct uplink" from Phoenix police headquarters.
There was no way for anyone in AzScam to get a fair trial. It was a modern witch-hunt. We all went along with it.
There are special places in hell for those who see the truth but will not act.
THERE GOES THE "JUDGE" DID AZSCAM RUIN ... v4-29-92
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Critics Try to Shut Down Arizona's Hickman's Eggs Plant with EPA Complaint
Wed., Oct. 14, 3:00pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
Sat., Oct. 17, 7:00pm
- Maricopa County to Investigate Death of Salt River Wild Horse as Animal Cruelty
- Another Major Anti-Islam Rally Planned for Phoenix This Weekend