In late August, DPS sources say, rumors were so thick that Randy Sterna went to Phelps to ask if there was any truth to the gossip that Ayars would be fired because of alleged mismanagement of the Tucson investigation. Sterna says Phelps told him not to worry about the Tucson case, that the rumors were just that--rumors.
But the rumors of the impending coup at DPS did not abate. On October 9, just 10 hours before Ayars and Sterna were suspended, Lee Rappleyea, a chief investigator with the Attorney General's Office, voiced his concern over rumors Ayars was about to be dumped at a luncheon meeting at a Fraternal Order of Police lodge in Glendale.
"`If you want to save your chief, you'd better rally the troops,'" officers who were there remember him saying. They say Rappleyea suggested that Ayars might be gone within the week.
Ironically, Rappleyea's attempt to save Ayars might have triggered the suspensions. Rita Pearson claimed Rappleyea "leaked" word of Phelps' investigation of DPS, forcing the Governor to move quickly to ensure that Ayars and Sterna could not impede the investigation.
What Rappleyea apparently didn't know was that Symington's office had been in contact with Linda A. Thompson, a lawyer employed by the Attorney General's civil division. Phelps had asked Thompson to advise the Governor's Office on how Ayars could be properly dismissed if there was evidence of wrongdoing or incompetence on his part during DPS' undercover operation in Tucson.
Steve Tseffos, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, says Linda Thompson didn't know Rappleyea. Rappleyea apparently had no knowledge that the Governor's Office had been in contact with Thompson. It was simply coincidence that the same day Rappleyea took his stand on behalf of Ayars, a draft copy of an internal DPS audit of the Tucson investigation landed on the desk of deputy director Sterna.
Phelps called Ayars at home at about 10 p.m. Phelps told Ayars he was being placed on administrative leave with pay and gave the director a few instructions: He was not to go into the office the next morning. He was not to talk to either Sterna or DPS Captain Gary Hughes. He was not to remove any state documents from his office. He was to call Phelps at 9 a.m. the next day.
A few minutes later, Sterna received a similar telephone call from Phelps.
Both men secured legal counsel. Both dutifully called Phelps the next morning, and each was told to come to a separate meeting with Phelps and Pearson that afternoon. Ayars and his attorney, Paul Eckstein, were instructed to come at 2 p.m., while Sterna and his lawyer, Jack LaSota, were asked to arrive at 3 p.m.
Two copies of the draft report of the Tucson criminal investigation--the only two copies known to exist at the time--were confiscated by the Governor's staff. Sterna had only received the report the day before and had skimmed through it. Ayars had read a summary of the draft prepared by Sterna but had not yet seen the report itself.
At about 1:30 p.m., Ayars, Eckstein and Lee Stein, an attorney associated with Eckstein, arrived for their meeting with Phelps. At about the same time, a press conference to discuss the suspensions was getting under way. The three men mistakenly walked into a room where Symington was about to hold a press conference on the officers' suspensions. For a brief, awkward moment the trio stood there, and then Ayars and Eckstein retreated, leaving Stein to listen as Symington moderated the statements disseminated earlier that morning. The Governor said the probe "resulted from various concerns expressed over a period of time" and that some of the alleged misconduct predated his administration.
Ironically, Ayars and his lawyers learned more from the Governor's press conference than from their meeting with Phelps.
That morning, Symington referred the "charges" against the DPS chiefs to the U.S. Attorney's Office for investigation and possible prosecution. Symington said the decision to involve an outside agency was made after he conferred with Attorney General Grant Woods and determined that since the Attorney General's Office advises both the Governor and DPS it would be inappropriate to involve it in the DPS probe.
But there was a hint that perhaps Symington was not as sure of the criminal culpability of Ayars and Sterna as press secretary Cole had been a few hours earlier--before the DPS internal audit had been reviewed by the Governor's staff.