The Nadir of Consumer Protection

Rebuffed in previous attempts at closing down adult bookstores and movie theatres, Representative Leslie Whiting Johnson has reversed field and now says she wants to protect their customers. So the Mesa Republican is sponsoring legislation that would require testing of the machinery that shows dirty movies. Specifically, she wants the state Division of Weights and Measures to make sure that if a video machine promises ninety seconds of porno for a quarter, then by George, people should get ninety seconds of action and not a second less.

"Someone has got to see that they get their quarter's worth," Johnson says of porno houses, which her bill calls "sexually oriented businesses." She insists it's no different from going to a store and being guaranteed that if you pay for a pound of ground beef that you get a full pound. "In this case," she says, "time is the commodity being sold."

Johnson won't take credit for what she calls the "consumer-protection provision" of the bill, suggesting the idea might have originated with Citizens for Decency Through Law. Not so, says Alan Sears, attorney for the Phoenix-based anti-porn crusading group that has been at the forefront of trying to shut down such places. But he does agree with the concept. "As weird as it may sound," Sears says of porn shops, "if you put in your quarter, you ought to get what you're paying for."

One person watching the bill closely is Richard Wolfe, deputy director of Weights and Measures. He says that he has no objection to having authority over the devices but that lawmakers must be willing to cough up funds for the extra staff it would require.

"Clearly, it would take more people," he says, and the alternative is to pull his workers off other assignments, such as checking the scales at grocery stores--and that would upset other legislators.

All this, of course, is to protect the customers.
"They can sell that trash, they can still watch trash on timed movie things," Johnson says, "but they're going to have to comply with the law in certain ways."

Porn-shop owners also would have to file blueprints and statements of ownership with the local health department--things not required of other types of stores. Johnson won't admit that her bill is designed to harass porn merchants. "I'm just a very thorough person," she says.

She is so thorough that her bill would require that the bookstores be designed so that proprietors could see everyone who goes anywhere in their shops, including the cubicles where patrons view dirty movies. Johnson says this, too, is designed to protect customers. But Democratic Representative Mike Palmer of Bisbee finds that section rather curious, saying, "It now may be a felony not to watch people masturbating."

STICKING OUR NOSE INTO HIS BUSINESS As far as Lester Pearce is concerned, his business is none of your business.

The freshman Republican from Mesa was the only member of the Senate Government Committee to support his bill last week to restrict public access to financial information of Arizona corporations.

Pearce says he introduced the ill-fated measure at the behest of Mark Schofield, owner of Pro Plus Software. Schofield says he was shocked to learn that just anyone could wander over to a state office and look at the records of his company.

Under Arizona law, any company incorporated in this state must file certain information with the Arizona Corporation Commission. That includes a disclosure of the majority owners and officers, the nature of the business, and an annual list of assets and liabilities. By law, all records at the commission are open to the public.

"A privately owned company is being forced to disclose private information off their tax returns," Schofield complains. "It's for curiosity seekers. There's really no purpose in allowing it there."

Pearce, owner of Pearce Homes, thinks it's wrong that, just because he incorporates his business, certain records should be subject to public scrutiny. And he was undeterred by the fact that the same law that makes his records public also allows him to look at his competitors' records. "Not all things are just in the market system," he says. "And there's just something about having a right to privacy."

His colleagues weren't impressed. Even Senator Wayne Stump--who constantly rails against government intrusion--was unsympathetic. Stump says businesses incorporate so they can get special privileges, such as limiting their personal liability and lower taxes. "I told him there is an alternative to making the records public: pay the higher tax," Stump recalls.

Glendale Republican Pat Wright says her own vote against Pearce's bill went beyond the issue of special privileges. "He told me that the press already had his corporate records spread out in front of them," Wright says. "At that point it looked like he was doing it for his own reasons rather than because of his constituent, and I just couldn't support that."

James Matthews, executive director of the Corporation Commission, says virtually every other state also gathers this type of information. However, he acknowledges that only a handful actually allow the public to look at it. Matthews says that all three commissioners opposed any change in the law, but that it wouldn't have affected the Commission's work one way or the other.

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