One of the nice things about living in the Phoenix area is that there are many real people—i.e., Chicagoans—here; so many, in fact, that the place would pretty much empty out if we all had to go back.
Just about anything you can get in Chicago, you also can get here. My favorite lunchtime treats, including Chicago-style hotdogs, Italian beef and gyros, are close at hand, often at places with “Chicago” in their names. Besides excellent brisket sandwiches, Goldman’s Deli at Hayden and Indian Bend in Scottsdale has Cubs, Sox, Bulls and Bears photos on its walls. I’m in one of them, watching a patented Michael Jordan slam dunk at a long-past NBA All-Star-Weekend contest.
Although the natives don’t like to hear it, we Chicagoans also feel right at home in Arizona when it comes to politics. Pocket-stuffing politicians are as much a part of the desert landscape as they are on the gray streets of the famously corrupt Windy City, and maybe more so.
There’s a difference in the latter regard, though, and an important one. Chicago pols look, talk and act like crooks, and don’t much care who knows it. In Arizona they come off as family-values, law-and-order pillars of the community; as my mother would have put it, “butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.” Still, when it comes to pillage, they can hold their own in any league.
Some of the scams pulled off here have been breathtaking even by Chicago standards. Topping the list is the so-called alternative-fuels caper of 2000. Jeff Groscost, then the blow-dried State House speaker from suburban Mesa, snuck through the legislature a bill to give rebates from state coffers of up to 40% of the price of new SUVs and pickup trucks to buyers who had propane or natural-gas systems installed in the vehicles, whether or not they ever used them. Then he spread the word among friends and neighbors, along with the name of a henchman whose company did such installations. Before the whistle was blown this crowd bilked the state treasury out of $200 million, a Haul of Fame haul. Best, even after it was revealed, nobody went to jail, proving that, in Arizona, if you make the law you aren’t breaking it.
Now fast-forward to the present past numerous similar episodes, including the current investigations of our beloved “World’s Toughest Sheriff” Joe Arpaio for, among other things, misappropriating $100 million in county funds. Maybe you’ve read about our Fiesta Bowl scandal, which didn’t approach the alternative-fuels mess in depth but certainly exceeded it in breadth.
The Fiesta Bowl was begun in 1971, partly as a way to make sure that our local U., Arizona State, had a New Year’s date; the Sun Devils played in its first three editions, and in four of the first five. From there it clambered to big-time status, eventually joining the long-established Rose, Orange and Sugar bowls as venues for the annual national championship game for our nation’s football-playing scholars. In the process it brought many tourist dollars to the Phoenix area.
But while the Fiesta Bowl was doing good it also was doing well for those in and around it. It turns out that the non-profit, tax-exempt bowl corporation was a goodie bag for those in the know, providing excessive salaries and expense accounts to its administrators and game tickets, junkets, backdoor campaign contributions and other nifty gifties to pal-pols. Among its internal beneficences were a four-day, $33,000 birthday bash at Pebble Beach Golf Club for its executive director, John Junker; $13,000 in wedding expenses for a Junker aide; and a $1,200 outing for visiting firemen at a local strip club.
The names of the politicians on the bowl’s freebies list included the president of the State Senate and the speaker of the House. They, and others, have been busy writing belated reimbursement checks and updating their financial-disclosure forms in an effort to wash off some of the resulting publicity stink. In that category is Jim Lane, the mayor of my home city of Scottsdale. The bowl hosted and catered a fund raiser for him while he was running for the office in 2008, and he only lately got around to paying for it. He didn’t pay sooner because he never got a bill, he’s explained.
The hits kept on coming even after the scandal’s first inklings broke in the Arizona Republic. The bowl paid $55,000 to Grant Woods, a former state attorney general, to conduct an internal audit of its operations. He swiftly produced a document that found no wrongdoing by anyone. When continuing reports of misdeeds finally forced a fuller investigation, it came out that Woods had paid $20,000 from his fee for assistance to a bowl lobbyist, who went on to “prep” the employees Woods interviewed. “Key people may have lied to me,” Woods sheepishly told The Republic.
Incidentally, that newspaper’s publisher, John Zidich, should have had a front-row seat for the shenanigans because he’d been a Fiesta Bowl director for six years before resigning last month.
Yes, the sun shines here every day, and the area sparkles with a day-before-yesterday newness foreign to cities Back East. But the winds carry the same odors we Chicago transplants are used to.
In a way, it’s comforting.