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OPEN RECORDS PREVENT A POLICE STATE

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Once again, police files that are currently public documents proved critical.
The record revealed County Attorney Rick Romley held a hidden interest, worth nearly $1,000 a month, in a saloon notorious for hosting patrons who peddled crack both out in the parking lot and even inside the bar.

Ironically, at the time of the series, President George Bush was singling out Police Chief Ruben Ortega and County Attorney Rick Romley for their highly praised campaign against crack, "Do Drugs, Do Time."

But the reality behind the scenes was that Chief Ortega's police department had protected Romley's hidden stake in Club 902. Arizona law requires that the police forward to the Department of Liquor Licenses and Control a report each and every time the police make an arrest or are summoned to a bar. The state liquor control board is responsible for closing down bars that can't or won't maintain order. In the preceding year, the police made an astounding 127 arrests at Romley's ghetto bar. The vast majority of these cases involved cocaine.

Yet not a single narcotics write-up made its way from the police department to Liquor Control.

The day after Romley's ties to Club 902 were revealed, records showed an attempt was made to shift the ownership of the bar to a self-described friend of the Romley family. The liquor control board labeled this move as a heavy-handed attempt to shield Club 902 from enforcement action. Nonetheless, police administrators quickly signed paperwork giving their approval.

When I finally found the police records that revealed the extent of the criminal activity and crack dealing at Club 902, a spokesman for Chief Ortega attempted to lie his way out of the situation. He suggested that the paperwork was scattered throughout the department and only recently assembled by hand.

In fact, the department's records bureau maintained a comprehensive file on all bars. And I got a copy of that report because that file is a public record.

The problem with Club 902 was not a clerical problem; the problem was that police administrators had simply refused to turn copies of their extensive files over to the liquor control board.

County Attorney Rick Romley's smarmy little cut from a crack-infested business operation was hidden and protected by Police Chief Ruben Ortega's police department until public records exposed the details.

When that happened, state liquor chief Hugh Ennis announced that because of the series of columns on Club 902, he was closing the bar permanently.

The same year that Club 902 was shuttered, County Attorney Romley and Police Chief Ortega launched the biggest public relations coup of their careers. They hired Joseph Stedino, a fringe mob player turned government informant, to front the AzScam sting.

For the better part of a year, Stedino, posing as a representative of Las Vegas interests, attempted to bribe elected officials into supporting legislation to legalize gambling in Arizona.

Politicians and lobbyists were videotaped accepting bribes; 18 subsequent indictments led to prison terms for the guilty.

But the public record also showed that Ortega and Romley used AzScam to try to punish critics.

In a yearlong review of the massive public record--250 videotapes, 600 audio tapes and more than 20,000 pages of transcripts--I discovered a sustained effort by law enforcement to entrap the head of the firefighters union, Patrick Cantelme.

Another AzScam operative, Gary Bartlett, told New Times, "Over 90 percent of the conversations I had with him [Stedino] were to get introductions to Pat Cantelme . . . the whole thing, when I was involved, was directed at Pat Cantelme and the fire department."

Cantelme had done nothing wrong. He had no vote or stake in legalized gambling. His only crime was that he was Arizona's most visible political opponent of Police Chief Ortega.

Though Stedino made repeated attempts to buy Cantelme, the firefighter kept his integrity.

The outrageous attempt by Ortega and Romley to jail Cantelme and thereby silence a critic would never have surfaced if the police had been able to hide their files. Under the new legislation that law enforcement is proposing, the AzScam transcripts would have remained locked up.

My stake in this bill is more than that of a working journalist who wants access to police records. I'm also a citizen who has tasted his own blood thanks to a few bad-apple cops.

In the course of reviewing the mountains of AzScam transcripts, I discovered that Stedino was also trying to set me up.

Chief Ortega's undercover agent was taped making his first inquiry about me only 24 hours after I wrote that the state liquor control board was going to close County Attorney Romley's Club 902.

Later, Stedino spent the better part of a week in a restaurant I used to frequent, dropping my name and fishing for dirt that might be used against me.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey