Burning Sensation

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.

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.

But the fact remains that Shields' nine-year run as president is ending in a very ugly way.

Legal threats often are just jargon, and boring jargon at that. But Lewis and Roca's letter to Shields about the "forged" document is so spicy, it's practically smoking.

Shields' claims that the documents are forgeries "recklessly damages reputations and goodwill that have taken generations to build," writes the firm's managing partner, Kenneth Van Winkle Jr., "and it is intolerable."

Just before our deadline on Tuesday, June 26, Hart called me to say that his firm had reached an agreement with Shields. But it comes with a price. Van Winkle's letter demanded not only that Shields set the record straight, but that the union correct the minutes to reflect the document's legitimacy.

Hart says that the matter has been resolved "amicably" — but he adds that the union "agreed to everything we requested in the letter."

I don't think I'm the only one who can't wait to read the official retraction and the new and improved minutes.

How embarrassing for Billy Shields. And his union.

And I'm not the only one who's paying attention to this one. Van Winkle's letter, after all, circulated around the Valley's fire stations with a certain schadenfreude.

Shields' union, the United Phoenix Firefighters Association, represents firefighters not just in Phoenix, but also Peoria, Glendale, Tempe, and Chandler. No doubt, most of its firefighters are perfectly happy with Shields' leadership. Pay is good, and so are working conditions.

But there's a faction that's grown increasingly, and vocally, unhappy with union leadership. They tell me that Shields has been too willing to use union clout to help his friend, Cantelme, win business for his ambulance company. Though Newco never actually got off the ground, Cantelme is now co-owner in a company called Professional Medical Transport.

Some firefighters believe Shields has supported Cantelme's company at the expense of union workers at rival Southwest Ambulance. Southwest used to have sole rights to ambulance service in Scottsdale and Chandler. Now, Cantelme's company, which isn't unionized under the International Association of Fire Fighters, does the job instead.

Shields has seemed stunned by the criticism directed at him.

After Phoenix Fire Captain Derrick Johnson, a former union officer, questioned Shields' staff about the Lewis and Roca document, Shields came to his station to discuss the matter. Firehouse gossip has it that Shields was livid, but Johnson tells me that his old boss was more hurt than anything.

"I told him that document could be a very divisive thing, and we needed to get it solved," Johnson says. "If that document was real, we should have been made aware of it — and been able to make a decision on how we felt about it, because it affected our jobs."

Shields seemed to agree, Johnson says, and the meeting ended with hugs.

But at least one other encounter didn't end quite so positively.

After one fire captain asked a union rep about the Lewis and Roca letter, Shields allegedly called the captain and threatened him.

The captain declined to discuss the matter with me. But he apparently contacted his battalion chief last week to complain about Shields' behavior. Fire Chief Bobby Khan said that Internal Affairs will be following up.

"We're a long way from saying there was a threatening call," Khan says. "But there has been an allegation."

I can't wait to see how Shields is going to explain away this allegation. Hey, maybe the battalion chief's report is forged. Or maybe the captain was trying to extort Shields!

Somehow, I'm sure Billy Shields has a ready answer. But I bet there are a lot of firefighters wishing he'd just shut up.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske