Deep Fix

As the stylishly draped litigator who ran Attorney General Grant Woods' staff of 301 lawyers, Rob Carey was the most powerful prosecutor in Arizona. Carey is cocky, urbane and intellectually intimidating, attributes that might have hung more gracefully from the frame of an older, less ambitious man; having taken over the office at the age of 30, Carey had an obsession with work that inspired as much antagonism as affection.

Whatever others thought of the results, he wielded his authority with a competence that was surprising in someone with so little seasoning.

It was Carey's leadership that allowed his staff to uncover the corruption at the foundation of Project SLIM, Governor Fife Symington's cost-reduction program for state government. Carey's probe revealed that Symington's deputy chief of staff, George Leckie, was in the middle of bid-rigging that guaranteed Symington's personal accounting firm, Coopers & Lybrand, would receive a total of $4.6 million in state contracts.

Carey not only found the rot at the bottom of Project SLIM, but he did so after County Attorney Richard Romley had investigated the scandal and cleared his political ally, Governor Symington.

The Attorney General's Office extracted nearly $800,000 in fines from Coopers & Lybrand and Leckie, as well as agreements that they would no longer conduct business with the state.

It was a great career victory for Carey, and it also qualified him as something of a hero to the people of Arizona--or would have, if they'd ever known the whole story.

Instead, Carey's poisonous relationship with his secretary--a relationship full of enmity stoked by human frailties--buried his career.

Deborah Vasquez was Carey's secretary for a rocky 17 months. Her stomach still curdles at the mention of his name. When she left the office last May, the air sooted with recriminations on both sides, Vasquez believed she knew how to snatch away this high-flier's plumage. She thought she had the goods on Carey.

Vasquez took her bitter charges of financial wrongdoing to Carey's political opponents, the press and a grand jury.

And as her allegations made headlines, the news media ignored her animosity toward Carey and the petty nature of her complaints.

In January, County Attorney Richard Romley, armed with Vasquez's stones, threatened Carey with a multicount indictment about the management of a small trust fund in the Attorney General's Office.

Behind the scenes, Carey was offered a choice: He could admit wrongdoing, resign and make restitution--or face indictment.

Today, one month later, the lawyers on both sides are still positioning for leverage. It is unclear whether there will be a plea bargain or prosecution.

There is more to Romley's desire to convict Carey than a prosecutor's zeal. The two men were widely expected to be the leading contenders for the attorney general's seat, once Woods left it to seek the governor's chair. Now, though, Romley has crippled his rival with a grand jury.

The political fallout from Vasquez's charges is, however, less important than the way those charges have dominated headlines and allowed Romley to abuse his life-and-death powers as a prosecutor.

Worse still, the Vasquez side show has obscured Romley's highly questionable role in Project SLIM. In fact, the Project SLIM bidding scandal, the largest white-collar fraud ever perpetrated on state government, simply disappeared from the evening news once Vasquez surfaced.

Carey's sins were minor. In-depth interviews and review of extensive records show he exercised poor judgment in an area of the law so arcane and murky that no one, except Richard Romley, can see the crime.

Through nine months of publicity, the auditor general, the state treasurer, a former attorney general and other experts on political contributions took this public position on Carey's handling of the trust fund: yes, no and maybe.

Corporate donors, all of whom were eager to help the attorney general, gave easily to the trust fund, which was used to pay for conferences and other sideline activities of the Attorney General's Office. Romley now charges the donors weren't fully informed about expenditures from the fund and that bookkeeping for the fund was sloppy.

Romley's interpretation--that this muddled situation constitutes criminal behavior--is a breathtaking stretch of prosecutorial discretion.

By making this reach, however, Romley was able to use Vasquez to bring down Carey.

It is not hyperbole to say that the press's unblinking readiness to trumpet the allegations of a self-styled whistle-blower for nine months created an atmosphere that allowed Romley and his investigators to grind away until Carey was little more than dry seed caught between mortar and pestle.

And yet the record is clear: The problems Vasquez had with Carey were personal, not criminal.

To know this, you don't have to look any further than the record of her pending litigation.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey