Longform

WHEN HEADS ROLLED AT DPSNEW TIMES GETS INSIDE THE GOVERNOR'S ATTEMPTED COUP

AT ABOUT 10:30 A.M. on October 10, Governor Fife Symington's press secretary, Doug Cole, appeared in the Senate press room and began handing reporters a brief statement. The release contained some shocking news: At 10 p.m. the previous evening, Department of Public Safety Director Rick Ayars and his hand-picked deputy, Randy Sterna, had been removed from their positions as the state's top cops and placed on administrative leave.

Cole also said it was "highly unlikely" that Ayars and Sterna would ever return to their posts at DPS. Though Cole said the suspensions were the result of "months of investigation" and that "very serious" criminal actions might be involved, he refused to divulge the specifics of the allegations against the DPS chiefs, saying only that they would be given "detailed reasons" for their suspensions in meetings in the Governor's Office that afternoon.

Symington never gave Ayars and Sterna any detailed reasons for their removal.

But a week later, Ayars and Sterna were returned to their posts, and Gary Phelps, a Symington aide who had spent 24 years at DPS and vied with Ayars for the director's job, resigned. Phelps was seen by many as a loose cannon who pushed the Governor to remove Ayars largely to satisfy a personal vendetta or to further his own ambition.

Phelps was suspicious of Ayars, and he had his reasons, however misplaced.
The two men had known each other for at least 15 years, and for most of that time Ayars had worked directly under Phelps' supervision. Phelps had not only wanted to be director of DPS, but he also thought that Ayars had secretly lobbied for the job after pledging Phelps his support. Phelps also felt that Ayars had shown disrespect for Symington by moving to fill positions at DPS without sufficient deference to the Governor's wishes. Phelps, when he worked as Ayars' deputy at DPS, had opposed the tactics employed by the department in a Tucson drug investigation that later gave rise to the removal of Ayars and Sterna. Simply put, Phelps didn't think Ayars was a "team player," and he didn't trust him.

He didn't think Symington should trust Ayars, either.
But others say Phelps was too cautious and politically astute to have tried to depose Ayars--unless he was acting on orders from his superiors. Telephone calls by New Times to Symington, his chief of staff and his press secretary went unreturned. Gary Phelps isn't talking, but his wife, who worked as a volunteer in Symington's campaign, says there's more to the story than Phelps' grudge against Ayars.

"I can tell you my husband never would have done something like that on his own," says Ernalee Phelps. "I worked for Fife for two years without pay because I believed in him. I feel like he's let us down."

Whatever Phelps' motive, it is clear that before the Governor placed Ayars and Sterna on administrative leave, his chief--if not only--adviser on the matter was a man who made no secret of his animosity toward the DPS director. Likewise, informed sources make it equally clear that after the Governor returned Ayars and Sterna to their posts, Symington gave Phelps an ultimatum: resign or be fired. In fact, Symington has admitted it was "kind of written on the wall" that Phelps should resign when the "criminal allegations" raised by the Governor's Office evaporated.

Symington publicly expressed his confidence in Ayars and later sent him a personal letter of apology. The two men have since met privately at least twice--something that never happened while Phelps was the Governor's liaison with DPS.

Rita Pearson, a Symington aide and attorney who conducted an administrative review of the suspensions, said Ayars and Sterna were removed because the Governor feared they might suppress or tamper with an internal report that detailed a two-year-old DPS drug investigation in the Tucson area in which funds were mishandled and tons of marijuana lost.

In what they claim was an attempt to preserve evidence and prevent a whitewash, Symington's people seized the only two copies of the report officially known to exist and asked the U.S. Attorney's Office to initiate a criminal investigation of the top DPS officer. The rift between the Governor's Office and DPS was suddenly and irrevocably public.

That audit, which was delivered to Sterna's desk the day the two DPS officers were suspended, does reflect badly on DPS. But its emphasis is on case-management procedures and how they might be revised, rather than on the actions of individuals. A review of the report by New Times reveals that the audit contains no allegations of criminal wrongdoing on the part of anyone at DPS--and Ayars says it was conducted only because he ordered it.

Pearson also asserted that the Governor did not want to taint the reputations of Ayars and Sterna--that a secondary reason for their removal was to divorce them from the process so they could be cleared of wrongdoing by an independent probe. Jack LaSota, the former attorney general who represented Sterna during his suspension, says the relationship between the Governor's Office and DPS was better after the enforced vacations than before--the bone has knitted stronger after the break.

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Philip Martin