Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley should be feeling very pleased with the way AzScam has turned out so far.

For one thing, various legislators who were captured unforgettably on videotape are receiving their apparently just deserts. Sue Laybe and Chuy Higuera are spending their evenings in prison these days, and Bobby Raymond is awaiting his sentencing.

For another thing, these results have been achieved quietly. Even defendants like Jim Hartdegen, the former Casa Grande legislator whose reputation was glowing and crimes were slight, could not afford to go to trial. He leapt at the offer of a plea bargain rather than fight the charges many of his advisers thought he could beat. Although Carolyn Walker is scheduled for trial in the fall, and other defendants may follow, to date there has not been a single messy court challenge to AzScam, no ringing public testimony to throw a spotlight on the inner workings of the County Attorney's Office. Now the difficult questions are fading--the questions Romley faced in the beginning about the million-dollar sting and the way it has brought to light the nearly unlimited powers of law enforcement in Arizona. Because life goes on, reporters all over town have turned their attention to profiling members of the returning Desert Storm militia and chronicling the surprising developments with ENSCO. Romley has done more than escape scrutiny, though. He may have been made a hero by AzScam's most enduring legacy: the TV images of legislators fingering stacks of bills as expertly as casino cashiers. At any rate, he is basking in enough glory that he's not engaging in positive PR. He hasn't given detailed answers to public queries about the sting, and last week he refused an interview with New Times rather than discuss his AzScam role. He even refused to fax the official Romley biography that is usually made available.

Now that the brouhaha is dying down, some of the people who have and do work intimately with Romley are willing to fill in some of the gaps about him, though.

The colleagues who have observed him closely, who agreed to be interviewed for this article, describe Romley unanimously as an infinitely ambitious man whose insecurities and resentments toward others inspire him to seek vengeance. They say he has had difficulty confronting his detractors, a quality that is causing him to blur the lines of authority between the police department and the County Attorney's Office in a way that provides the police with greater clout.

Both of these characteristics may have influenced the way Romley helped shape AzScam. But there is a third characteristic that may be the most important of all where AzScam is concerned: Romley's peers say he has made many decisions in the County Attorney's Office only according to his perceptions of how those decisions will be received by the press.

Says an insider, "He is really going to push anything that is high profile."

If Richard Romley has gone to great lengths to promote himself, it has all come together for him in '91, with AzScam. He can breathe easy for a while, and maybe look around for another project that will help him get wherever he's going.

What sort of project will it be?

A HIGHLY PLACED source inside the County Attorney's Office tells a story that he says illustrates perfectly the way Romley relates to his job. Like most of the other sources in this story, he asks not to be identified, since a county attorney's influence is far-reaching and can affect his critics even after they have left the County Attorney's Office.

This source says he has seen Romley continually gauge his actions as county attorney with his personal ambitions in mind. "He is a very ambitious guy," the source says. "I think he would like to be a senator or a congressman."

One of the first times the source realized Romley is a climber was shortly after Romley was elected, when the source sat through a meeting that was to decide the fate of the case of Milt Novkov.

Novkov, the county assessor, was accused of adjusting property valuations for his friends, and the scandal had been much ballyhooed in the press for weeks. Now the matter had been remanded back to a grand jury, and it had fallen to Romley's office to decide whether to pursue Novkov any further.

"Normally you look at the state of the case and see whether you can prove it. You're thinking, `What is the right thing to do?'" says the source. "But Romley's whole thrust was, `What is the media going to do if I do this? And what is the media going to do if I do that?' He does that constantly."

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Deborah Laake