After 16 years as Maricopa County attorney, Richard Romley is now free of the office and openly job shopping. The popular Republican says he might run for governor or congressman.
He leaves behind a fourterm epic run as the county’s chief prosecutor, with a record scarred by relatively few scandals. His supporters love him for the same reason defense attorneys loathe him — he’s tough on crime.
He took on lawmakers, police officials, slumlords, drug users and the Catholic Church, standing firmly upon what he said was a bedrock vision of justice.
But Romley, 55, also has his critics. They see him as harsh, inflexible and too worried about the politics behind every decision.
He never has faced a serious challenger in his political races, and if he does seek higher office, he’s sure to be dogged by opposition researchers. A recent examination of Romley reveals discrepancies in his carefully molded public image, including an omission in his description of his private life.
Although he told the Tribune about only two marriages in a recent interview, including the one to his current wife, Carol, Romley has been married three times. The marriage he failed to mention lasted five years.
That wasn’t the only time Romley’s memory failed him during an interview last month. He misstated a key fact in one of the biggest cases of his career — the 1991 murders of nine people at the Wat Promkunaram Buddhist temple west of Phoenix.
He said he ordered the release of four Tucson suspects in the case before any other arrests had been made. The men, who had been implicated in the crime by a mentally ill informant, confessed initially but recanted just as quickly, saying they had been browbeaten by investigators. No evidence linked them to the crime scene.
"Tough call," Romley said with pride. "I just didn’t believe the evidence added up."
The arrest of two Avondale teenagers came after the Tucson men were released, he repeated.
But Romley’s memory of the issue was faulty. The teenagers, 17-year-old Jonathan Doody and 16-year-old Alex Garcia, were arrested about a month before the release of the "Tucson Four," after being found with the guns positively identified as the murder weapons. They also confessed — but didn’t recant — and swore they didn’t know the Tucson men.
Romley told a Valley newspaper the day before the Nov. 21, 1991, release, "The case is not the same as it was when we initially started. We’ve got the Phoenix people."
In an annual report Romley published last month, his staff also misstated the timing of events in the temple murders. The report notes the four suspects were released from custody because of an "act of personal courage" by Romley, and that "eventually," two juveniles were arrested in the crime.
Romley told the Tribune in a Jan. 3 follow-up interview that he was wrong, and he apologized for his previous misstatements. As far as the report goes, "I guess I’ll have to make the correction in your newspaper," he said.
STOPPING THE ABUSES
Clearly, Romley will have to keep explaining his successes against whatever his opposition tosses up in the future. And the gold-embossed annual report, which cost taxpayers $50,000, could be considered a head start.
The report — called "Focus on Excellence — Sixteen Years of Success: 1989-2004" — contains none of the numberheavy charts and tables in previous annual reports. The fullcolor 46-page book, however, does chronicle some important highlights of his career.
Romley won fame soon after being elected by teaming up with Phoenix police in 1990 for the AzScam investigation of corruption in the Legislature. The state was soon scandalized by undercover videos of lawmakers reaching for stacks of cash, which were bribes for their votes. Despite political pressure to drop the investigation, Romley pressed ahead with indictments against Republican and Democratic politicians, some of whom served prison sentences.
Romley, a champion of victims rights, lobbied hard for the passage of the Victims Rights Act in 1990, which was approved by voters.
In his fourth term, he gained international attention with an investigation into sex abuse by Catholic priests and his ground-breaking deal with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. The cover-up by church officials bothered Romley, a former altar boy, from the beginning, he said.
"How could the church as an institution . . . fail to address this?" Romley said. "They are supposed to be the moral compass for all of us."
The investigation revealed the former leader of the diocese, Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien, knew abuses were occurring but did nothing except transfer the accused priests, some of whom were accused of molesting more children later. O’Brien also told families of alleged abuse victims not to go to police.
Instead of prosecuting O’Brien, Romley obtained an unprecedented deal that forced church officials to revamp policies on dealing with abuse within its ranks. Eight Catholic priests were also indicted on charges of sexual abuse.
Romley said his solution for the priest scandal was better than anything yet to come out of the Vatican. If he had pressed for an obstruction-ofjustice trial for O’Brien, "they would not have removed him, and we would probably still be in court," he said. "The primary goal was to stop the abuse."
Two weeks after the deal was announced, O’Brien failed to stop and render aid after striking a pedestrian with his car. The man died, and O’Brien was later sentenced to probation for hit-and-run.
The "Focus on Excellence" report also touts Romley’s tough antidrug policy, claiming the program "successfully met its goal to reduce the demand for illegal drugs while increasing public awareness about the dangers of drug use." Part of the program includes an award-winning Web site created in 2002,
PUBLIC FUTURE, PRIVATE PAST
Regarding his political future, Romley expressed concern that a vicious primary race for governor against a fellow Republican would leave both candidates "bloodied." He won’t run for governor against Janet Napolitano in 2006 unless the Republican Party unites behind him, he said.
But, Romley goes against the Republican grain on one of the party’s key issues — abortion.
"Primarily, this is a woman’s choice," he said. "I do believe in reasonable regulations — parental consent and all those reasonable regulations — but I’m still prochoice over here."
His position is "not philosophically honest," he said. If a criminal shoots a pregnant woman and the fetus dies, he would want the person prosecuted for murder — "you’ve killed a child," he said.
Though he struggles with the issue of legal abortion, he would not "flip-flop" on his position, he said.
When asked about his private life, Romley described his first marriage to a "high school sweetheart" and his marriage in 1985 to Carol A. Haight, his current wife. County court records show he was also married to a third woman, Carol Sue Brown, from 1977 to 1982 — a fact that one of his former aides, Barnett Lotstein, said he didn’t realize.
Romley said this week he hasn’t discussed his second marriage publicly, until now. After returning from Vietnam with both legs amputated above the knees, Romley’s first marriage ended in divorce and he won custody of his two young children. The second marriage turned out to be a mistake, he said.
"I was absolutely convinced I was trying to find someone to help with the kids. She was a fine woman," he said of Brown. "You get in a relationship — perhaps you go too quickly."
Romley’s greatest legacy to the office of Maricopa County attorney may well be his twovolume policy book for prosecutors. Andrew Thomas, who was elected to Romley’s former post in November, said he did not intend to toss out the rules, though he may alter some.
Romley’s policies took much discretion away from his attorneys to decide how to charge and try cases — a fact he has been criticized for by local prosecutors, including former county attorney candidate Thomas McCauley.
The policy manual requires the office to charge cases only when there is a "reasonable likelihood of conviction," which critics claimed was to pump up Romley’s record of successful prosecutions for political purposes.
Romley’s reputation for only going after "sure things" and the high number of plea bargains the office made for criminals inspired a 2003 book about the office called "Down and Dirty Justice."
The book by Arizona State University professor Gary Lowenthal details the author’s nine-month sabbatical as a temporary prosecutor under Romley. Filing charges in a case that lacked "jury appeal" was frowned upon, Lowenthal wrote.
"Most years, the county attorney had not proceeded with felony charges in 50 percent of police submittals," the book states. "Not surprisingly, within the ranks of law enforcement agencies there was a great deal of resentment."
But, Lowenthal also gives Romley credit for the policy manual system, which he said is crucial to maintain efficiency in one of the country’s largest prosecution agencies. The office handles more than 45,000 felony cases each year, and a complicated jury trial ties up its resources.
"Mr. Romley was one of the pioneers in this country in creating these kinds of policy manuals," Lowenthal said in an interview. The manual kept in check the "beliefs, values and prejudices" of the office’s 300-plus prosecutors, he said.
Georgia Staton, a Democrat who ran against Romley in 1988, said he "professionalized" the office with his policies.
Going after graffiti artists and slumlords, for example, made the Valley a better place to live, she said.
"Expanding the office beyond the prosecutorial role into the community action role — that is a huge difference," Staton said. "In partnering with people you wouldn’t ordinarily think of — schools, agencies in various cities — that has a big impact on the development of the Valley."
Richard Romley career highlights
1989: Takes office.
1990: Voters approve victims rights initiative, which Romley had helped craft.
1991: Teams up with Phoenix police to run AzScam sting operation, which resulted in the indictments of seven state legislators and 11 other people on corruption-related charges.
Orders the release of four suspects in the infamous "Temple Murder" case a month after two juvenile suspects are arrested in the crime.
1993 Works with state lawmakers to create Truth In Sentencing law, requiring convicts to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.
1995: Begins antigraffiti program that leads to 70 percent drop in graffiti in the Valley.
2001: Investigates and later indicts Brian Finkel, an outspoken Valley abortion doctor, on sexual abuse charges. Finkel is later sentenced to 34 years in prison. 2002: Begins investigating sexual abuse allegations in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.
2003: Makes deal with Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien that allows O’Brien to escape obstruction of justice charges, yet requires changes in diocese policies regarding sexual misconduct. Two weeks later, O’Brien is arrested in fatal hit-and-run.
2004: A federal jury finds Romley retaliated against a female employee at the county attorney’s office who complained of sexual harassment by one of Romley’s top aides.
Later in the year, Chandler police officer Dan Lovelace, accused by Romley of murder in the shooting of a woman, is acquitted.