BENCH THIS UTILITY MAN

Mormon missionaries do not roar through neighborhoods astride Harley Davidsons, sporting fade haircuts and M.C. Hammer bloomers. Instead, these earnest young men invariably try to convert you by arriving at your residence atop sensible Schwinns, wearing black pants, white shirts and "Hi, your daughter and your soul are safe with me" haircuts.

This sort of day-to-day pattern, because of its very predictability, provides all of us with some modest comfort.

Then something shocking occurs, like Joe Castillo realistically having a shot at the Corporation Commission seat.

You cannot help but feel that life is random; anything is possible except, perhaps, the Red Sox actually winning a World Series.

The mismanagement, the self-dealing, and the virtual collapse of Keith Turley's utility empire, Arizona Public Service Company/Pinnacle West Corporation, have rivaled the bankruptcy and seizure of Charles Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan for statewide headlines.

Pick your favorite moment in recent APS history: Turley and the gang propose to build the largest nuclear- power plant in the world. Following construction, consumers learn that the land for the utility was purchased from Turley's in-laws. Last year, the plant refused to run 75 percent of the time and, based on Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports, Palo Verde was selected as the worst-managed nuclear operation in the country by the Washington, D.C.-based Public Interest. Turley and his fellow directors voted themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars in home-loan mortgages at the astounding rate of 6.75 percent interest. More than $32 million was siphoned out of the company and into the hands of the son of board member Karl Eller to fund a venture-capital business. Turley and friends plunge the company into a debt of more than one-half billion dollars and secure one of the lowest bond ratings in the country at the same time that the rest of us are paying some of the highest electric bills in the entire nation.

Throughout, Joe Castillo was a carnival barker for Turley's interests.
When the giant electric utility sought rate increases, Joe Castillo grabbed a microphone and demanded commission approval.

As head of the APS shareholders organization, a group funded by Turley, Castillo was an incessant and vocal shill for ever more expensive electricity.

"The proposed rate increase is not enough," and "the proposed increase is merited" are typical comments from Castillo's Corporation Commission testimony.

The greed of Turley and Castillo led to a record Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken might have envied.

The ineptitude led to disaster.
APS took its monopoly profits and, over the objections of the Corporation Commission, gambled in the highly speculative real estate market. The ensuing financial chaos saw the utility's stock collapse, holdings sold off and the public outcry of enraged investors at the last shareholders meeting. A bitter takeover battle ensued when an out-of-state utility, PacifiCorp, did the logical and attempted to buy out the reeling APS.

From this toxic dump, Joe Castillo stepped forward and announced for the Corporation Commission.

He asked voters to unseat incumbent reformer Marcia Weeks.
Joe Castillo was not hauled from the podium, tarred, feathered and put in the public stockade.

People took him seriously.
Pollster Bruce Merrill was recently quoted explaining how Castillo can win.

Candidates like Joe Castillo do not develop in a sterile hothouse; they are encouraged. In Castillo's case, he's had some very helpful ink.

The opening salvo in the Castillo campaign was fired by columnist Bob L'Ecuyer.

On August 30, 1989, L'Ecuyer wrote a diatribe in the Westsider blasting Commissioner Marcia Weeks. Arguing that commissioners needed to " . . . set aside any bias or prejudice for or against utilities . . . there's growing doubts whether Commissioner Marcia Weeks meets that standard. Instead she is engaged in highly inflammatory attacks on people related to utilities . . . Weeks' attack appears to be pure politics . . . Weeks is a very liberal Democrat."

L'Ecuyer concluded his assault comparing Weeks to a demagogue who used " . . . bias and prejudice . . . lust[ing] after power so intensely they risk dividing and damaging society to get it."

Five weeks after L'Ecuyer's column pounding Weeks, Castillo was interviewed in newspapers across the state regarding his candidacy opposing Marcia Weeks.

What readers and voters did not know was that L'Ecuyer and Castillo were business partners, according to 1989 records from the Secretary of State's Office.

They described themselves as "political consultants who contract with candidates or candidates committees to provide campaign services including brochures, tabloids, letters, radio and TV spots, telephone banks and personal contacts. Other services include polling and research, fund raising and budgeting. All campaign services are for the purpose of influencing an election . . . "

Although Castillo marketed himself in the press as a small shopkeeper of blueprints, he and his campaign associates were longtime political operatives, originally called Castillo, Guinn, and L'Ecuyer.

Before joining the firm, Hugh Guinn was a candidate for the state Senate. Records from his campaign show that during one reporting period more than 50 percent of his contributions, amounting to thousands of dollars, came from Keating and his executives.

Fueling the common wisdom that with enough moxie and money you can buy whatever sort of expert testimony you want, Governor Evan Mecham hired L'Ecuyer in 1988 during the chief executive's impeachment. L'Ecuyer swore under oath before an astonished House of Representatives that it was Mecham's right to pilfer state protocol funds to finance the governor's Pontiac dealership. Mecham made off with $80,000 in loans and was removed from office.

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