Here's an interesting way to begin your day. Lie awake in bed before the sun comes up thinking about explaining to the woman who cares for your 3-year-old that you are not a cocaine dealer. No matter what the morning newspaper says.

Television reports had begun airing that charge about me the previous day.
The next morning I stood in my driveway and unfolded the Arizona Republic and scanned the headline: `AzScam' Probed Cocaine Allegation." The article said that the chairman of the Corporation Commission, Renz Jennings, and I were investigated for possible cocaine involvement by the undercover agent (Joseph Stedino) who conducted the `AzScam' probe."

The reporter was summarizing the testimony presented the previous day in the AzScam trial of former state senator Carolyn Walker.

In the courtroom of Judge Michael D. Ryan, Detective Gary Ball had said under oath: Captain Block came to me and said that there was information that Mr. Lacey and Mr. Renz Jennings were involved in illegal cocaine activity at Richardson's Bar, and I instructed Mr. Stedino to go to Richardson's Bar and see what he could find out."

The story continued, The probe was dropped after allegations about them [Jennings and Lacey] failed to pan out."

This incredible assertion by Detective Gary Ball was made in court to explain why my name turned up in the AzScam tapes.

Because press coverage explained that the police dropped their investigation when they found nothing in their cocaine probe," some friends suggested that I ignore the entire dirty business.

But you can't do that with a smear.
And that's what this was.
The fact is that when this kind of charge is made, and then explained away by allegations failed to pan out," there are always going to be folks who think you got away with something.

The very day the story appeared, the design director for this newspaper interviewed a job applicant. The woman seeking employment asked about the guy with the cocaine problem, saying she wasn't sure she could work in an environment where that" was going on.

There's more at stake here, however, than some harebrained law-enforcement goose chase sprung with the idea of putting me in jail.

From the moment the existence of the AzScam sting was revealed and throughout the jailings of the legislators who took money from Stedino, critics raised two objections: Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley and then-Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega entrapped their victims, creating crime where none previously existed; Romley and Ortega sought to boost their sagging reputations by targeting political opponents.

Set up as an undercover operation, AzScam was a joint undertaking of the police chief and the prosecutor. Together, these two put convicted hoodlum Stedino in business. With nearly $1 million in law-enforcement cash, Stedino pretended to be a front man for Vegas interests who wanted legislation to legalize gambling in Arizona. Stedino set out to bribe state senators and representatives in return for their vote on gambling.

The entire focus of AzScam, the sole reason for spending $1 million, was to identify corrupt legislators.

And yet the moment there was a suggestion that Renz Jennings or I might be breaking the law, Stedino dropped everything, rushed cross-town and launched some half-baked investigation at Richardson's.

Renz Jennings isn't a legislator. He couldn't sell a vote for legalized gambling because he doesn't have a vote on the matter. He sets rates for Arizona's electric utilities.

I'm not a legislator, nor do I have any influence over legislation.
While I have not written a single word about legalized gambling, ever, I've written thousands of words about Romley and Ortega.

If the police chief and the prosecutor were not targeting political opponents in AzScam, why was Joseph Stedino sent to Richardson's to investigate Renz Jennings and me?

What led the police to pursue the two of us?
Under oath, Detective Ball said he doesn't know why they were investigating us. There is no written record, according to Ball. ²Now this is odd.

In the AzScam sting, there are audiotapes, videotapes and written reports of Gary Bartlett claiming that he knew legislators for sale. This documentation launched the investigation of the senators and representatives, and the police have saved every word of Bartlett's felonious bragging.

If you call the police department in need of help or with a tip, your call is recorded. Informants' gossip is duly taken down and committed to report. There is a paper trail even for the lowly parking ticket.

And yet law enforcement's star undercover agent, Joseph Stedino, was pulled away from AzScam to investigate Jennings and me and there is no record as to why.

Attorney Larry Debus questioned Detective Ball on this matter: In this case, you made such an investigation of Corporation Commissioner Renz Jennings and of the editor of a local newspaper without any written report. Is that true?"

I believe the only written report," replied Detective Ball, is whatever Mr. Stedino reported to us."

In other words, the only paperwork was put together after the investigation cleared us.

Though Detective Ball claimed there was no documentation as to why we were investigated, there were reasons Rick Romley and Ruben Ortega would be interested in getting something on Renz Jennings and me. Jennings is married to the woman who runs the Maricopa County Democratic party. In this role, Dianna Jennings was responsible for finding a Democrat to run against Richard Romley.

And I had been writing uncomplimentary things about Romley and Ortega in this column. On February 7, 1990, this column reported that the state Department of Liquor Licenses and Control was going to close down the Valley's most notorious bar, Club 902.

The shutdown followed an investigative series in this column that explored Romley's hidden financial interest in a saloon infamous for the parking-lot sale of crack cocaine. The coverage also revealed how the police department under Ortega protected Romley's operation. The very next day, February 8, 1990, Joseph Stedino, while wearing a body bug, asked Gary Bartlett if it was possible to meet me.

I thought that was a remarkable coincidence.
²But under cross-examination, Detective Ball said there was no effort by Romley and Ortega to target me because of the columns. Certainly not.

There was just this mysterious tip involving cocaine. And while there might not be any written record of this mysterious tip-we all make mistakesÏthe information certainly had to be investigated.

Let's assume that Detective Ball did not make up this entire story about cocaine at Richardson's to cover Romley's and Ortega's efforts to drag me into AzScam. Let's assume someone passed this garbage about cocaine on to them anonymously. Let's not quibble about whether or not the cops investigate every lunatic lead that comes in.

Fair enough.
Then why wasn't this mysterious tip turned over to a narcotics detective for investigation?

If AzScam wasn't a convenient excuse to silence Ortega's and Romley's critics, why was Joseph Stedino pulled away from the announced targetÏlegislators on the takeÏto pursue a journalist who'd investigated the police chief and the prosecutor?

If AzScam wasn't about politics, why was Joseph Stedino taken away from the legalized-gambling sting to investigate a corporation commissioner whose wife sought a Democratic opponent to challenge Romley?

Last month I asked in this column why Ortega and Romley directed Joseph Stedino to make inquiries about me.

The answers by Detective Ball only keep the troubling questions alive.


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