Cop Chop

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley is threatening the careers of two veteran Valley drug enforcement cops in a political power play that appears aimed at protecting his own investigator who acted questionably in a recent drug investigation.

The controversy, which Romley has been trying to keep secret despite its potentially devastating consequences for the two police officers, is the talk of Valley police and legal circles.

And for good reason. The extent to which the powerful county attorney is pushing what's little more than a typical on-the-job personality conflict is raising more than a few eyebrows.

Romley has accused the two highly respected officers -- Sergeant Jim Cope of the Phoenix Police Department and Sergeant Dale Walters of the Chandler Police Department -- of lying, a serious charge that, if true, could put cases in which they are involved in jeopardy and could lead to revocation of their police certifications. Already, Cope has been forced from his assignment as one of Phoenix's top narcotics officers and Walters has hired an attorney to fight the county prosecutor's efforts to remove him from his drug enforcement assignment.

Romley has threatened to "Brady List" the pair -- a blacklist of sorts stemming from a court case called Brady v. Maryland that requires the prosecution to disclose to the defense any information that may help the defense. That includes a prosecutor's belief that an officer has been untruthful or has had other integrity problems in the past.

But documents obtained by New Times through public records requests and interviews with numerous people close to the investigation show that Romley has little, if any, reason to treat the officers in such a heavy-handed manner.

Instead, it is Romley's own investigator -- a retired Phoenix cop named Joe Soto -- who created problems by failing to use a case-tracking system designed to ensure the safety of undercover officers. Police investigators also were concerned that Soto was inappropriately handling a confidential informant in a drug investigation of his own, a probe that later overlapped with Phoenix and Chandler cases. Records show Soto may have allowed his informant to keep cash from drug sales he was involved in, in addition to paying him as an informant. The County Attorney's Office says that allegation is unfounded but says Soto will be disciplined for other lapses, including not using the case-tracking system and for the way he handled the informant.

County attorney spokesman Bill FitzGerald says disciplinary paperwork is still being prepared and that it will be up to Romley to decide what punishment Soto will receive.

However, Soto will not be "Brady Listed" because he didn't lie, FitzGerald says.

When Cope and Walters expressed their concerns to Romley about Soto, Romley struck back with letters to their bosses, saying he would "Brady List" them if they didn't transfer out of the drug enforcement units.

That in itself has led to questions about Romley's motives in his treatment of Cope and Walters. As Chandler city attorney Dennis O'Neill pointed out in a September 12 letter to Romley, lying is lying, no matter what unit an officer is assigned to. "If there is really a truth and veracity issue with an officer, you have an obligation to file a Brady Letter no matter what the officer's assignment," O'Neill wrote.

Romley won't talk about the matter, FitzGerald says.

But Barnett Lotstein, one of Romley's top aides, rejects the implication that Romley is being vindictive because the police officers complained about Soto.

Lotstein maintains that it is his agency's duty to raise concerns about police officers who prosecutors believe may have lied or displayed a lack of integrity, no matter how minor it may seem and even if the police department feels differently. For instance, Lotstein asks, what if he happened to see a cop at a doughnut shop one morning and later remarked to the cop that he'd seen him? But if the officer said, "No, that wasn't me," then, Lotstein contends, he'd have to wonder why the officer denied being there. Lotstein says he would feel compelled to "Brady List" the officer and report the doughnut denial to the defense.

Sometimes, Lotstein says, a lie is "direct and unequivocal."

"Other times," he adds, "you just have a suspicion, a bad feeling in your stomach" about an officer.

Cope and Walters declined to be interviewed for this story. The County Attorney's Office wouldn't allow Soto to be interviewed.

Lieutenant Matt Knowles, president of the Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association, which is representing Cope, says it's wrong that Romley has the power to end an officer's career with so little reason and no proof.

"There's no recourse and there's no due process," Knowles says.

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Patti Epler
Contact: Patti Epler