As it turns out, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office was right when it tried to involve Senator Alan Stephens in AzScam as though he were a dangerous man.
Not right that he was guilty of racketeering, as became clear last week when Judge Frederick Martone ordered that Stephens' name be dropped forever from the civil lawsuit the county attorney's office had filed against him. But right that he is dangerous, particularly where the county attorney's office is concerned.
The nature of the danger revealed itself as soon as Martone's order came down and Stephens felt free to talk about the ordeal of the last months, when he had set aside his duties as the Arizona Senate's majority leader because of AzScam taint.
He didn't talk garrulously; that isn't his style. His version of events since January was offered in monosyllables and short sentences, and the most heated emotion that ever came into his eyes was wryness. But if his comments were measured, they didn't lack a theme: Stephens' perceptions of the Phoenix Police Department and county attorney's office have hardened greatly because of what they've put him through. "I've learned not to put anything past them," he said of law enforcement officials. "This has been a horrible situation at the legislature, terribly unpleasant, and a time when the county attorney's office and police department have been running the state. I understand that potentially this could become a police state."
It was a strong sentiment but not a surprising one, in light of all that's happened to Stephens. Because the grand jury refused to indict him, he was never hauled up on criminal charges of bribery, like other AzScam defendants. The county attorney's office then pursued him with a civil racketeering lawsuit, saying he had accepted $4,180 in money orders from undercover informant Joseph Stedino. Stedino testified he told Stephens that the money orders, which were signed by an array of Democratic contributors, had in fact come only from Stedino. If you assume that Stedino wasn't lying, Stephens had knowingly violated campaign contribution laws.
This was far too much to assume about Stedino, a salaried stool pigeon who has served time for petty crimes. Both the tape of his conversations with Stephens and a witness to the MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 conversations contradicted Stedino's statements. In fact, the state's case against Stephens was so flimsy that prosecutor Alan Davidon backpedaled furiously, eventually doing everything but admitting in court that he didn't have a case.
Nonetheless, the lawsuit so pressured Stephens that he says he sold his interest in an airport gift shop and took money from family members in order to raise $25,000 for attorney Janet Napolitano. Napolitano and Stephens have now petitioned the court for reimbursement of attorneys' fees, but no final decision had been reached by early this week.
As though it wasn't enough to surrender his life savings to defend himself against bogus charges, the state also put an immediate lien on Stephens' house when he was named in the lawsuit. Such strong-arming is a provision of the state's racketeering statutes.
It's the sort of situation that, ever since AzScam hit, has had observers muttering about power and the abuse of power at the county attorney's office. Indicted legislator Jim Hartdegen has even speculated publicly that he may have been singled out for attention by Joseph Stedino. Hartdegen says that he had made well-known to County Attorney Richard Romley his willingness to reform Arizona's harsh criminal code, which was authored primarily by former chief assistant attorney general Steve Twist. He wonders whether that willingness brought him special scrutiny.
Stephens is another legislator who, prior to the sting, had made it known that he thought Arizona's stringent crime laws should be re-examined, since they are resulting in one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. It isn't unusual that these days Stephens should be having thoughts similar to Hartdegen's.
What is unusual is that he's in a position to do something about his thoughts. Every other legislator implicated in AzScam has disappeared from the statehouse--has either been expelled, as with Carolyn Walker, or has resigned, sometimes as a provision of a plea-bargaining.
Only Stephens has survived. Hell, he has been vindicated, and has returned to his position at the head of a powerful caucus filled with new vision.
"So now I understand these things," he says of the way recent experiences have opened his eyes to the inner Col 3, Depth P54.10 I9.14 Stephens downplays this version of faithlessness, saying that "there was a lot of confusion about the issue of who was going to support who. From my standpoint, it was something which was up in the air." He adds that the final result was "a decision of the caucus."
Others remember that some caucus members were furious at Stephens' treachery and haven't yet forgiven him. But they also marvel at the skill and daring that allowed him to behave so disastrously and then largely turn it around. "You're not talking about a general election, you're talking about a few people who you have to look in the eye every morning and who have to trust you again and again and again," explains a close observer about leadership elections. "To walk in lying is not a good idea. It is remarkable that he has recovered to the extent he has. He is talented!"
By most accounts, he regained the esteem of his colleagues because he understands that all legislators want to feel important. Where Alfredo Gutierrez was more of an authoritarian in caucus, Stephens' style is something the other senators tend to call "consensus" and "inclusive."
"He doesn't withhold information, and he tries to make sure every senator is involved in the process, that each has a special area of expertise," says Senator Lela Alston.
"He doesn't polarize people," says Senator Stan Furman.
These qualities served him so well that his caucus members lined up gladly behind him when he began campaigning to enlarge their caucus in '87. There were only eleven Democrats then, and Stephens thought it could be a bigger number. He saw that many legislators were preparing to retire, that the Republican party was divided in its voting loyalties between moderates and arch-conservatives. He saw that--having been crippled by Evan Mecham's divisive administration, an impeachment trial, and the maddening geniality of a lady governor who couldn't tell an administration from a hiatus--it was time for state government to change. "I thought we had an opportunity," he says.
Working closely with House minority leader Art Hamilton and others, Stephens began recruiting credible candidates like Stan Furman, John Dougherty, and Chuck Blanchard. He began raising money for them. He says he cut way back on his accounting business in Phoenix in order to Col 2, Depth P54.02 I9.03 about Stephens. They describe the way he is able to keep his eye on a thousand matters affecting a thousand bills all at once, and always perceive what each slight movement means, immediately and in context.
They talk about the day during Mecham's impeachment trial, when Stephens managed to force a vote on impeachment practically as a sleight of hand. The trial had been dragging on forever when Senator Wayne Stump, a Mecham supporter, proposed that the Senate not hear the evidence on one of the charges against the governor. Observers believe Stump made the proposal because the charge that remained had to do with false reporting of campaign contributions and had already resulted in criminal charges being filed against Mecham. Stump didn't want the whole thing to be hashed over in public and impede Mecham's chances at a fair trial, but he nonetheless made his proposal as practically an empty gesture. According to the minutes, he said, "Mr. Presiding Officer, if more than three vote for this, I will be greatly surprised."
And so it was a greatly surprising day for Stump. Observers remember that Stephens immediately began tearing around the floor like a white tornado, lining up the votes of his caucus members. He had perceived that there was already enough evidence to convict Mecham, and that here was a way to get the whole thing over with. He had realized that some timid legislators were delaying a vote, hoping to stall long enough to force a recall election. These legislators didn't want to have to commit themselves on an explosive issue like impeachment that could affect them later at the polls.
He had seen that if his caucus members moved as a bloc, the day would be theirs.
Stump's motion passed with the support of the Senate Democrats and the staunch Mecham supporters--a total of sixteen, the exact number needed. The entire body was stunned.
"This was happening lickety-split, and what Stephens did was nothing short of genius," says Eckstein, who prosecuted Mecham. "He ran over them like a Mack truck. By the time they woke up, they were saying, `Oh, my God! We're going to have to vote!' It was the ultimate in political chicanery."
None of the stories about strategy is to suggest that Stephens is without heart. But the stories do suggest that others describe him first as an operator.