Public Wreckers

As if you needed another example of how Maricopa County's run like a banana republic, there's the case of this catbird's colleague Ray Stern. You see, Stern also got a knock on the door by MCSO thugs on the same night that Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin were busted.

Reporter Stern was cited, not collared. But the charge against him stands. If he's found guilty, he could face six months in lockup and $2,500 in fines.

Technically, he's been charged with disorderly conduct, a Class 1 misdemeanor. But in reality, he's being harassed for taking digital pics of public docs.

Allow this avian to explain: 'Til the county attorney ended the grand jury inquiry into New Times, MCSO flack Paul Chagolla wouldn't allow New Times reporters to visit MCSO offices to view public docs.

New Times scribes had to hoof it to the law offices of Iafrate & Associates, headed by barrister Michele Iafrate, who reps the MCSO in some matters, just as attorney Dennis Wilenchik still does in others. Only at Iafrate's bungalow office near Second Avenue and McKinley Street was a New Times reporter able to review public documents requested from the MCSO.

Stern asked to review all e-mails between the MCSO and the media for the month of August. Eventually, Chagolla told Stern that about half of those were ready to be perused at Iafrate & Associates. If he'd want any copies, they'd be 50 cents a page. At Iafrate's law office, he was taken to a conference room and given a doorstop of docs to look over, with law clerk Cari Shehorn there to observe him as he did so.

Stern whipped out his digital camera and began snapping pics of printouts, many of which were MCSO press releases. Shehorn told him he had to stop or leave, that the public-records law didn't allow him to take pics. Stern demanded Iafrate herself give him the legal justification for stopping him from inspecting the printouts.

Iafrate entered the room, and she and Stern had words.

"Iafrate said her interpretation of the law was that I couldn't take photographs, that I could only view records," sang Stern to this swallow. "I said, 'If your interpretation of that law is that I'm prohibited from taking photographs, then you must not know the law.'"

Iafrate asked Stern to leave, and he left.

"I never yelled," said Stern of the verbal rumpus. "How can it be illegal for a reporter to assert a point of public-records law with a lawyer in a law office?"

That night, Stern got his visit from two MCSO plainclothes officers with his disorderly conduct citation. Iafrate and her legal lackeys claimed that Stern had raised his voice and disrupted the delicate Iafrate sanctum.

"[The deputies] said, 'We're here to have you sign this [citation] so we don't have to take you to jail,'" recounted Stern.

Iafrate didn't return this winged wordsmith's calls, so she wasn't able to explain away this trumped-up complaint. Anyone who knows Stern knows the fella's not unreasonable. This canary doesn't believe for a sec that Ray disturbed the peace.

All the experts this ibis asked tended to agree with Stern about the camera issue. There's nothing in the public-records law that says you can't snap digital pics, or any other kind of pics of documents.

"I would be fascinated by what they think the legal basis is for prohibiting you from taking a photograph," commented Dan Barr, attorney for the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona. "There is none. What the public-records law allows you to do is inspect, and there's no difference between using a camera or taking notes verbally or with a pencil or a pen or whatever."

Even former County Attorney Rick Romley thinks Iafrate's full of it on this one.

"Generally, the public-records law makes those records totally available," offered the former prosecutor. "They can be photocopied, which implies that you can take a picture of them digitally."

If that's all there were to this matter, that one episode would be bad enough. But the following week, when Chagolla informed Stern that the remainder of his public-records request was ready, Chagolla told Stern he'd have to look at it at the Fourth Avenue Jail. There, Stern was forced to relinquish his camera, tape recorder, cell phone, even his pens. He was led past prisoners being booked and through a metal detector, like a common criminal.

"I asked Paul why he was taking me here to inspect public records," recalled Stern. "I told him that it could be considered an intimidation tactic. He said, 'Oh, no, we take media back here occasionally.' But that was clearly not true. The deputies booking the prisoners were shocked to see us back there. In fact, they asked Chagolla who he was. He said, 'I'm Paul Chagolla. I'm the PIO.' They said, 'Who?' I turned to one of the deputies right in front of Paul and asked her, 'Have you ever seen the media back here inspecting public records?' This woman laughed and said, 'No, never.'"

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons