Maricopa County's "drug war" generals are taking aim at the local Asian community and want to use the unprecedented method of wiretapping fax transmissions.

The federally funded high-tech blitz, which also would include a $70,000 surveillance van and equipment to intercept beeper messages and cellular-telephone conversations, would be conducted by an "Asian Task Force" already set up by Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley to investigate heroin smuggling and money laundering.

"I don't like it if they're just going to target Asians. They don't have a white task force, do they?" says Madeline Ong-Sakata, a native Arizonan of Asian ancestry. Ong-Sakata is executive director of Phoenix's Pacific Rim Advisory Council, which seeks expanded trade and economic ties between Phoenix and the Far East.

"It's the `yellow peril' mentality," says Louis Rhodes, executive director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union. "You have to be suspicious of specialized task forces. There's almost always a bias against minorities. How about a yuppie task force? Maybe they ought to concentrate on the yuppies who went to Wall Street and the S&Ls."

Romley's proposal calls for "gathering intelligence" by intercepting transmissions by fax, cellular phones and beepers from a special "surveillance van" equipped with tape recorders, video and still cameras, and video printers.

"Such a van is equipped with air conditioners and heaters that can be operated while the vehicle is parked with the engine off," the proposal says. "This surveillance van is crucial to the overall success of the described task force."

Rhodes says the proposal "does raise questions of privacy." Court approval is needed for placing wiretaps but courts often give police wide latitude, and Rhodes contends that such operations snare innocent people through "guilt by association."

"If the government intrudes on almost any group, it could find illegal activity," Rhodes says. "It's like focusing on a gang area and then it gets into `Everybody is a gang member.'"

Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega, in a letter of support for Romley's proposal, notes the task force's focus "on investigating narcotics-related crimes involving the Asian community." Romley's Asian Task Force includes Phoenix police and officials from three federal agencies--Customs, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Ironically, the police and the County Attorney's Office also have a task force that focuses on recent vandalism of churches and businesses in the Asian community. Neither Ong-Sakata nor Rhodes had heard of the antidrug Asian Task Force.

"I knew they had a task force," says Ong-Sakata, "but I thought it was to fight bias. I recall Ortega speaking to us about that."

Officials at the County Attorney's Office and Phoenix Police Department did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The $161,539 project for the Asian Task Force is one of eighteen requests by Arizona law-enforcement agencies for money from a pot of $32 million in recently authorized High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area federal grants. When the money was made available by Congress, local agencies hurriedly put together proposals and flew them to El Paso on December 14 for hand delivery to U.S. Treasury Department officials.

The proposal by Romley's office notes that technology to intercept fax transmissions is available but has not been used by Arizona agencies. Such equipment would cost $19,500. Romley's proposal says his Asian Task Force "already has gathered very valuable intelligence on Asian heroin smuggling and money laundering organizations with direct and confirmed ties to Phoenix . . . from Southeast Asia, Canada, Mexico, and New York. We have identified individuals and businesses directly involved in these illicit organizations."

The proposal seeks an "expansion of our criminal-intelligence data base."
Despite the stated purpose of fighting heroin smuggling and money laundering, Romley's proposal includes no statistics on the extent of those activities in Arizona. Instead, the proposal notes that his office's "Possession of Marijuana Bureau has had a 91.7 percent increase in submittals of cases" in the first nine months of 1990.

The proposal also says "surveillance time" by Romley's investigations division for the same period increased by 1,100 percent. There is no mention of the actual amount of "surveillance time" or what exactly is being monitored.

More than $6 million was requested by Arizona agencies for a variety of antidrug projects. The wish lists include:

* $30,000 to buy four night goggles and two night scopes for the Nogales Police Department.

* Four "narcotic dogs," valued at $28,000, for the Pima County Sheriff's Office.

* A $15,000 video camera for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
* A "Mass Selective Detector," a drug-analysis machine valued at $70,000, for the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

* Money for overtime pay to Tombstone marshal's deputies so they can "make buys from known local drug dealers."

A third of the total money requested is for pay--at overtime rates--for members of antidrug task forces. It's common practice for Arizona agencies to lure their officers to antidrug work by offering overtime rates. A DPS proposal calls for paying $30 an hour to its task-force members.

The applications were formally approved last week by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, a state agency chaired by Romley that consists only of law-enforcement and elected officials. Rex Holgerson, the commission's executive director, told the commission that the governors of Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas have agreed to equally split $12 million of the total $32 million in grants. Arizona agencies also may get some of the remaining money. "We had to scurry around" to finish the applications by the December 14 deadline, Holgerson said. The money would be made available early next year.

"How about a yuppie task force? Maybe they ought to concentrate on the yuppies who went to Wall Street and the S&Ls."

Despite its purpose of fighting heroin smuggling and money laundering, the proposal has no statistics on those activities in Arizona.

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy