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A METEORIC DESCENTTHE TOUGH TASK OF UNDERSTANDING CAROLYN WALKER

At her first court appearance after she became famous for a new reason, Senator Carolyn Walker enraged the public that had once adored her.

She said hardly a word as she did so. Standing tall in a jewel-green suit, she allowed the wavy-haired Richard Gierloff to request that she be declared indigent and that he, Gierloff, be appointed by the court as her attorney. At the time of her arrest on charges of money laundering and taking nearly $26,000 in bribes, Walker's combined salaries from the Arizona State Legislature and her full-time job at U S West Communications were more than $47,000.

Even more rankling than her declaration of poverty and her request for special counsel, however, was Walker's seeming belief that she had a right to a large defense staff. Through Gierloff, she petitioned the court for two lawyers, a secretary, an investigator, expert witnesses and extra office supplies, all from the pockets of taxpayers. To a state reeling from the blow of yet another crippling government scandal, Walker's cheek seemed unbelievable.

When Walker and Gierloff had finished, they swept wordlessly past a wall of reporters. The senator's haughty expression as she moved toward the elevators was reminiscent of Leona Helmsley's at her own trial. Walker's face was stained with so much disdain that Phoenix Gazette columnist John Kolbe mused aloud, "She is such a smirker, isn't she?"

Within the space of a few minutes, Carolyn Walker had claimed the spot at the top of the most-hated list of AzScam defendants. She left behind her in the courthouse hallway an impression of arrogance that embittered a public already startled by her expressions of greed.

"Tony, you'll have me for a friend for the rest of your life if you want me," she had told undercover agent "J. Anthony Vincent" on the occasion of their first meeting, when she had pocketed $5,000 out of the more than $25,000 she would eventually take from him. "I like the good life and I'm trying to position myself that I can live the good life and have more money." Her statements, along with her eagerness to actually hug Vincent at the conclusion of a transaction, were plastered all over town in the form of transcripts and videotapes, by a police department very eager to show off its handiwork.

For days and weeks after word of her demands in court hit the newspapers, you could hardly go anywhere in Arizona without hearing, "How about that Carolyn Walker?"

And yet the public had misunderstood. Gierloff, who has been replaced at Walker's side by attorney Murray Miller, says now that the unorthodox proposals made in court were entirely his idea. "I understood that there would be some adverse reactions to the requests because people don't understand what makes this case different," he admits.

He launches into a tirade about the shocking amount of money the state has available to squander on "sting" operations and the voluminous cases it is able to mount against defendants like Carolyn Walker as a result. A case that involves 214 videotapes, he suggests, is more than one man can fight alone.

As he speaks, it becomes clear that Walker's defense and the behavior of the police who created the "sting" represented a crusade for Gierloff and that Walker was pulled along in his wake.

When Walker couldn't pay Gierloff and the court would not declare her indigent, Gierloff begged off, saying he could not afford to continue to work free. But the damage had been done by then, and Walker already had an image problem.

It is a familiar feeling for Walker, who according to friends often feels misunderstood, even when she isn't.

She felt misunderstood a few years ago, when she was scolded in the press for supporting a bill that provided a big financial break for her longtime employer, U S West. She was unable to perceive at the time that refusing to disqualify herself from the vote gave the appearance of a conflict of interest. Friends remember that she kept insisting, "Anyone who knows me knows I am not a toady for U S West."

They remember that the basis of her inability to get along with House minority leader Art Hamilton, who could have been a natural ally on behalf of the black constituency they both represent, stemmed from the feeling she was misunderstood. She thought that Hamilton, who is enormously popular and powerful at the legislature, did not give her her due and that his own contributions were overestimated by the voters.

Close friends say, in fact, that Walker can have a difficult time understanding that she has done anything wrong when she feels accused. Perhaps this is the inner conflict that has resulted in the impression on the part of a few legislators that she is hostile and touchy. "She's an angry back-bencher. She is always simmering," says one senator who has worked with her. "Sometimes she is unnecessarily rude to people, pushy and suspicious. I think she feels cheated by the world."

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Deborah Laake