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But despite the patina of reconciliation coating the official version, the Ayars affair was another embarrassing misstep by the blunder-prone and inexperienced Symington administration. The two top DPS officers were suspended for mysterious reasons--for more than a week, no explanation was forthcoming, and then, when the Governor's Office did hold a press conference to explain the actions, the explanation was so convoluted that it invited disbelief. Phelps' departure left the impression that he had acted rashly, an image no one on the Governor's staff was eager to correct. Pearson said the Governor's actions were based on Phelps' investigation and that she didn't know what Phelps had told Symington. Chief of staff Bunny Baderstscher also seemed to be out of the loop.

On October 15, she told a breakfast meeting of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce that Sterna was "a victim of circumstance" and was moved aside for procedural reasons. That afternoon, Chris Herstam, who was then in charge of Symington's communications office, said Baderstscher was "stating an opinion of her own, and not that of the Governor."

"She is not privy to any of the information regarding the ongoing investigations," Herstam was quoted as saying.

But Phelps was not the only Symington aide whose relationship with Symington changed in the wake of the suspensions.

On October 18, the Governor shook up his staff, replacing chief of staff Baderstscher with politically astute former legislator Herstam. Baderstscher became Symington's "strategic policy adviser," with the responsibility of "formulating strategic plans and alternative policies." Symington aide George Leckie's title was changed from "deputy chief of staff" to "chief operating officer," though he retained oversight of "business, financial and administrative matters."

There's one thing, though, that distinguishes Phelps from the others.
He's the only one without a job.

ONLY GARY PHELPS and Fife Symington know what they said to one another just before the nighttime suspensions of Ayars and Sterna. Afterward, the explanations given for the removals smacked of political damage control.

Symington said DPS' handling of the Tucson marijuana investigation was troubling; he said the operation reminded him of the "Keystone Kops." One high-ranking DPS officer put it more bluntly: The Tucson deal was "a holy fuck-up."

The Tucson bureau, the officer said, has always been the bastard child of DPS, the last to get the word on any major departmental news, cut off from the DPS chiefs in Phoenix by attitude as well as geography. Somehow, Tucson seems to attract a different kind of DPS officer, more independent and less inclined to go strictly by the book.

In 1988, DPS Captain Gary Hughes was assigned to run criminal investigations in Tucson. Hughes is a bright, aggressive police officer who wanted to bust drug dealers. It was Hughes who initially approved, over the objections of some subordinate officers, the infiltration of a drug-smuggling ring by some officers under his command.

The so-called "Chavez report"--an analysis performed by DPS auditor Conrad Chavez that Symington was afraid might disappear if Ayars had not been suspended--reveals that:

* During the course of the investigation in 1989-90, DPS officers and a paid confidential informant (a drug trafficker released from jail in exchange for his help with the operation) were either aware of or directly participated in "the transportation of approximately 20,430 pounds of marijuana," of which only 5,701 pounds were ultimately seized. The remainder was illegally distributed in the Tucson area.

* Officers involved in the operation also failed to account completely for the money received in the course of the operation, though no cash is thought to be missing. (Ayars said there was a difference between the estimated street value of the marijuana and the revenue actually received by suspects.) The report also strenuously criticizes the cavalier manner in which receipts were handled. At one point, an officer kept more than $110,000 at his house for several days.

* Five vehicles were purchased by the DPS for its informant to transport marijuana. All of the vehicles were apparently lost, and two trucks were likely abandoned in Mexico. Two of the vehicles were bought with money provided by the target of the investigation, one with federal antiracketeering funds and two others "may have been purchased with funds from an unknown source."

No one denies the operation was slipshod, but the audit criticizes the lack of standardized procedures within DPS more than any individuals involved in the operation.

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Philip Martin