Trial By Media (Part II)

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Richard Romley was temporarily humiliated. For a brief period, columnists needled Romley with their opinion that the county attorney looked like a fool, if not the handmaiden of Governor Symington, for clearing the perpetrators of bid-rigging.

With surprising deftness, however, the county attorney played his own cards.
As Deborah Vasquez's allegations first played out in the Mesa Tribune for four weeks, the county attorney helped the story build steam.

Romley asked friendly state legislators to vent their frustration with the attorney general in the press, according to two sources directly involved, both of whom requested anonymity.

The attorney general's relationship with the Legislature has never been better than caustic. In 1995, it was almost poisonous.

Though a Republican, Woods had openly challenged the statehouse and Symington in their efforts to adopt the Contract With America to Arizona. In his inaugural speech in January 1995, the attorney general defended the state's minimal strides in enforcing civil rights and environmental laws and promised there would be no backsliding. He also went on television during the annual battle over tort reform and attacked the insurance industry.

All of these positions were in direct opposition to the hard-right stances taken by Symington and the legislative majority.

In response, the Legislature ordered the state auditor general to review all of the books for the Attorney General's Office. Soon enough, Vasquez's allegations of financial fraud were added to the bill of particulars, and a second round of audits and news articles ensued.

State Senator Stan Barnes, a member of the legislative committee that oversees the auditor general, agreed to Romley's request to turn up the heat in the press.

"There is a smell coming out of the Attorney General's Office, and we've got to find out what it is," Barnes was quoted as saying.

The Vasquez "expose" had finally reached critical mass.
On July 16, only five days after the first published reports on the SLIM settlement, the state's largest newspaper, the Arizona Republic, picked up the Vasquez story for the first time, running with a front-page banner headline: "Top Woods Aide Probed Over Fund."

When the announcement of Leckie's SLIM settlement was published one day later, it wasaccompanied in the press by front-page stories quoting Romley saying he mightbeforced to investigate Woods' financial abuses.

On the very next day--July 18--the Arizona Republic made a remarkable choice.

The editors turned the opinion page over to Richard Romley, who wrote a lengthy column explaining that his investigation of Project SLIM was not suspect.

Romley's column appeared under the inviting headline "No Whitewash, No Criminal Conduct."

The following morning, Romley formally announced in the pages of the Republic that his office would investigate "serious allegations of misconduct" involving the Attorney General's Office and Rob Carey.

The hunt was on.
Subsequent press coverage provided the protective camouflage that allowed the county attorney to operate with impunity.

The state's major daily newspapers all editorialized in favor of having Romley investigate the Attorney General's Office.

When Romley held his press conference to formally announce his investigation of the attorney general--six weeks after Flatten began pumping the story--the county attorney resurrected Vasquez's blind allegation of the Joe Woods "secret cache of files."

Any reporter who might have had ethical qualms about repeating Vasquez's imagined conspiracy was now relieved of responsibility; a public official had raised the issue.

The FBI thought so little of Vasquez's alarmed hysteria that federal agents never asked the Attorney General's Office for an explanation.

The other substantive charge in Flatten's initial article, and the allegation that would ultimately drive Romley and the daily press in the pursuit of Carey, involved MLK monies used to finance the attorney general's Tucson retreat.

Using this paltry, $2,600 bookkeeping anomaly, Richard Romley would eventually threaten Rob Carey with a multicount felony indictment--unless he resigned, admitted guilt and made restitution.

But it would take months before Romley's threat could be leveled; nearly a year of disturbing journalism would create the crisis atmosphere that would give Romley's prosecutorial missiles the throw weight needed, if Carey were to be driven from office.

"Woods' Wife, Aides Took Free Plane Trips" read the headline on Bill Muller's August 10, 1995, story in the Arizona Republic.

The story was the type of partly true, greatly hyped journalism dogging the Attorney General's Office to this day with small allegations that create a perception of large wrongdoing, where, at most, bad judgment exists. This lengthy string of flea-bite stories about plane trips was based not on independent research, but on investigations inspired or run by Romley and his allies.

As the auditor general followed the legislative directive to examine the books for the Attorney General's Office, the AG's trust fund also was examined.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey

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