Finally, a Crackdown at the 902

Richard Romley's cash-and-crack hypocrisy is finally facing direct assault.

The county's top prosecutor has maintained a hidden interest for five years in what has become one of the Valley's most lawless bars. Since assuming office in January of 1988, the incidents of armed robbery, aggravated assault and the sale of crack cocaine at Club 902 on West Van Buren have escalated dramatically. Neighborhood residents, unaware that the Maricopa County attorney held two liens on this pesthole, wondered how in God's name Club 902 managed to keep its liquor license.

Last week the superintendent of the state Department of Liquor Licenses and Control said he'd seen enough.

In a move interpreted as a stall to buy time, Club 902's owner, John Consolino, is attempting to transfer the license to bartender-manager Cary Emma Davis, a Romley family friend. Superintendent Hugh Ennis said last Thursday that he will ask his board to block that transfer. If successful, Ennis claims he will then go after Consolino's license because of the recently publicized track record of the 902.

Surrounding his lunch plate with hands the size of eggplants, Ennis gives the impression of a man who enjoys the idea of cleaning up this notorious crack outlet. As a uniformed beat cop back in the Sixties, Ennis used to patrol the 902 when it was nothing more than a blue-collar bar. Speaking quietly and forthrightly in the subdued Western grandeur of the Stockyards restaurant, Ennis presented a stark contrast in law-enforcement attitudes to Richard Romley.

From the moment the prosecutor's stake in Club 902 was revealed, Romley has behaved like a greased weasel.

That is not surprising.
What no one has understood is that, unlike almost any other bar in Phoenix, the liquor license of Club 902 is unique.

If the 902's liquor license is revoked, it is dead, forever. It cannot be transferred. It cannot be resold. No bar can ever operate at that location again. This is because a church is across the street.

Consequently, effective enforcement action against the 902 means Romley stands to go from a lucrative interest (nearly $1,000 a month in payments) in a skid-row bar to a position where he is stuck with a saloon which cannot sell booze and that is located on the wrong side of the tracks at a time when you can't sell real estate in Phoenix's better neighborhoods. Club 902 is not a likely candidate to be gentrified into a yogurt bar.

So of course when the Guardian Angels revealed in a community forum that Romley held two liens on a bar notorious for the sale of crack in its parking lot, the county attorney rolled his eyes in astonishment like Jim Bakker looking for a convenient corner in which to assume the fetal position.

Romley told stunned observers that he had no idea the bar had a drug problem.

If Richard Romley was unaware that his only significant investment had a significant drug profile in law-enforcement circles, then he should be recalled for incompetence.

Police records reveal that last year, while Romley served as the county's top prosecutor, Club 902 had 123 arrests at the bar or in the parking lot. In addition to armed robberies, aggravated assaults and attempted homicides, the record includes 65 narcotics-related busts, the vast majority of which involved crack.

Do you know of any other bar in Phoenix with more crack citations? Does Romley?

Richard Romley promised voters in 1988 that he'd clean up the Valley, yet he claims he is unaware that his own bar is the target of repeated undercover narcotics purchases by the police. Romley's gall is all the more outrageous because he is the top prosecutor in the war on drugs in Phoenix. This program has been held up by President George Bush, in the wake of his anti-crack speech, as the model that the rest of America must follow. The local campaign that the White House is so high on consists primarily of County Attorney Romley and Police Chief Ruben Ortega staging press conferences where they announce the latest body counts of teen-agers arrested and jailed for smoking marijuana in the parking lots of bars like Zazoo.

The sheer volume and nature of the arrests at Club 902 last year ridicule Romley's plea of ignorance. These very arrests were routinely referred to Romley for prosecution. The real question is not whether Romley is telling the truth--the answer to that is perfectly obvious. The real question is how Club 902 managed to keep its doors open.

Effective enforcement on bars is two-tiered: It takes vigorous arrests as well as paperwork follow-through to nail an offender.

While street-level officers racked up a staggering number of collars at Club 902, police brass never marched the arrest reports over to the state liquor control department. Without police reports, Superintendent Ennis was powerless to move on Club 902. Prior to this series on Richard Romley's bar, there was not a single narcotics violation in the state file.

If you think Romley's relationship with Ortega's brass looks too cozy, you are beginning to get the picture.

The chief depends upon the county attorney to prosecute his arrests. An unsympathetic prosecutor can make the chief's record look like swiss cheese.

In fact, when Tom Collins was elected county attorney, he won by making a campaign issue out of just how understanding and pro-Ortega his administration would be. Given this reality, is anyone surprised that Ortega's administrators did not supply the paperwork that might have destroyed Romley's investment?

Having said all this, I would be remiss if I left readers with the impression that police brass have been completely invisible in matters of Club 902. While it is true that Chief Ortega absolutely refuses to discuss the Valley's most notorious crack bar, his top administrators have stepped forward.

On Super Bowl Sunday, a small handful of Guardian Angels peacefully picketed County Attorney Richard Romley's home. They asked the prosecutor to divest himself of his interest in Club 902, something Romley refuses to do.

When the cops were called, not one, but two, captains showed up to help run off the Guardian Angels.

This is not surprising.
Chief Ortega loathes the Guardian Angels.
The thing that Chief Ortega finds so infuriating is that the Angels will not kiss his ring. Chief Ortega demands absolute obedience. When his officers are not sufficiently servile, he calls them "dopers, liars and thieves."

When Ortega tried to keep the Angels out of Phoenix, the group's founder, Curtis Sliwa, was not intimidated.

Sliwa labeled the police chief "Noriega" Ortega.
Then the Angels took to the streets to harass crack peddlers.
The Guardian Angels, not Chief Ruben Ortega nor County Attorney Richard Romley, are the ones who have called attention to the crack problems on West Van Buren.

When he ran for office, Richard Romley created one of those moments that electrified voters and swung the election his way.

Romley sought to assure voters that he was man enough to conquer the drug problem. Dealers would not be able to hide from him.

Propped up on his canes, Richard Romley announced that as a wild, young man he had smoked marijuana. But thank God, he said, that when he made that tragic mistake, they had a diversion program called the United States Marines. Flash bulbs went off in the hearts of voters. It was the single memorable moment in a dreary campaign. With one stroke, Romley reminded everyone that he'd lost his legs in Vietnam and implied that somehow his sacrifice was worth it because he'd escaped the horrors of marijuana. At the time of the speech, Romley was cashing checks from Club 902.

There is another cripple in this war on drugs and hypocrisy.
Patrick Walsh gets about with the aid of a walker because of a fight with cerebral palsy. Yet three or four times a week the sixty-year-old Guardian Angel drives his battered '79 Chevette down to West Van Buren to stake out Club 902. With a dog Walsh describes as "an M&M: half mutt and half mongrel," he parks and sets up shop as a citizen snitch. Last Tuesday, he watched the cops conduct an undercover sting and then bust a dealer in the parking lot of Club 902. As soon as the police drove off with the arrested man, a neighborhood teen-ager bicycled into the bar's parking lot.

"The kid got off his yellow bike and while one dirtbag held the bike, the kid cut a deal with another dealer," said Walsh.

Today, the mayor and city council are scheduled to give their opinions on the liquor-license transfer from Consolino to Davis. No matter how that vote turns out, on March 2, Superintendent Ennis will ask his board to oppose the shift.

Since the Angels revealed Romley's ties to Club 902, arrests at the bar have been shifted for prosecution from the county attorney's office to the attorney general's.

Ennis is working with assistant attorney general Steve Twist to accomplish what Romley and Ortega would not; they are attempting to close Club 902.

Ennis is personally reading each and every arrest report at the bar from 1989.

The dealers have not been frightened off by the recent publicity. In the past few weeks, more than twenty narcotics arrests--more than double the rate of last year--have occurred at Club 902.

Such is the investment of Richard Romley, leader in the war on drugs.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey