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

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"No decision will be made on the future employment of Ayars and Sterna pending the outcome of the investigation," Symington said.

Both LaSota and Eckstein say their clients were simply handed a brief letter, informing them they had been placed on administrative leave.

LaSota and Sterna claim there were no criminal allegations against the deputy director and no indication that Sterna had done anything improper.

Eckstein says he pressed the Governor's aides for information about the charges and that--for the entire week his client was suspended--no one in the Governor's Office ever told him or Ayars what the allegations were or what the source of those charges were. Revenge, posited Eckstein, was Phelps' motive.

After Eckstein suggested Phelps might have been motivated by revenge, Rita Pearson--who had previously advised Symington on environmental affairs--took over the administrative end of the investigation. She met with U.S. Attorney Linda Akers to request an investigation into "alleged criminal activity" within the department.

For a little more than a week, from 10 p.m. on October 9 until midmorning on October 16, DPS' top officers were kept in limbo. A few days after Ayars and Sterna were suspended, Gary Phelps addressed an assembly of officers at DPS headquarters. He told them they were part of the "best-run department in state government."

Then, as abruptly as they were removed, Ayars and Sterna were reinstated. Wallace Kleindienst, assistant U.S. attorney for Arizona, said neither the U.S. Attorney's Office nor the FBI could turn up evidence that federal law had been violated. Symington's office released a terse statement admitting the criminal allegations were unfounded and clearing the two top officers of administrative improprieties.

Symington defended his actions in the release: "It is unfortunate that Colonel Ayars and Lieutenant Colonel Sterna and their families experienced anguish during the last week. But when criminal allegations arrived on my desk, I felt it was imperative that an immediate investigation occur.

"Under the circumstances, I believe this brief administrative leave was appropriate and in the best interests of the state."

Reinstated, Ayars and Sterna were quick to forgive.
Ayars and Sterna survived, and Phelps was cut loose. Even so, the Governor hinted the door might be open for Phelps to return to a position in state government--Symington said he felt "sorry" for Phelps and would like to see him back in public service.

GARY PHELPS IS still looking for a job.
It will be hard for him to find other work in law enforcement, for it is unlikely that any police chief or sheriff in the state will be able to put aside the perception of him as the guy who tried to take out Rick Ayars. Phelps is now a pariah at DPS, the department in which he spent half his life.

Sources close to Phelps say he declined to talk about the Ayars affair because he hopes Symington will find another role for him in his administration--there is a rumor that he may be appointed to the next opening on the Pardons and Paroles board, but it may be difficult for him to win approval from the Senate. For now, he is playing the stoic soldier, refusing to undermine his superiors even after his superiors have decided he is expendable. Ernalee Phelps is not quite so reticent.

"We're waiting to see if Fife Symington is a man of his word," she says.
"My husband is not someone who does things in a hurry. He is an extremely brilliant man, with his patience and his knowledge . . . if people knew what happened, it's all so simple. He could tell you and you'd just go, `Oh, now it all makes sense.' But he'll have to do it on his time, when he's ready."

"I worked for Fife for two years without pay. I feel like he's let us down," says Ernalee Phelps.

Phelps' departure left the impression that he had acted rashly, an image no one on the Governor's staff was eager to correct.

It was a highly self-critical report, and it had been ordered by Ayars.

Ayars is not a charismatic figure, but a steady administrator given to wearing short-sleeve shirts with his jacket and tie.

Symington asked Phelps to resign before the votes were counted as "a show of confidence."

"Phelps believes that knowledge is power, and any knowledge that he has that you don't have gives him that much more power over you."

Ironically, Ayars and his lawyers learned more from the Governor's press conference than from their meeting with Phelps.

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Philip Martin