The Grafters

Just when I was beginning to tire of CNN's coverage of "attrited" warehouses in Iraq, Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega unwrapped his million-dollar sting of state legislators.

Is this hilarious? I feel like I ought to send out postcards across the country that announce, "Hey, I'm from Arizona, where people are pig-snout stupid."

I paid cash money to see gangster movies like Goodfellas and Miller's Crossing, but the characters in those pictures were Little Sisters of the Poor compared to the craven vote-peddlers who haunt our statehouse.

I love the police videotapes.
Why waste four hours on Godfather III when you can watch our state legislators drop their pants in front of Chief Ortega's ersatz, organized-crime pimp, J. Anthony Vincent?

With a million dollars in cash backing, Vincent posed as a connected guy who wanted a little legislation. He wanted gambling legalized in Arizona so casinos could be built here.

So far nineteen legislators, lobbyists and influence-hustlers have been indicted.

For outright Leona Helmsley cojones, you have to give a Best of Phoenix award to Senator Carolyn Walker.

Arizona's answer to Al Sharpton, Walker was caught last year sucking up inappropriate corporate contributions. Walker said then that her critics were racists.

Now Walker is on videotape (took $25,880), plumped upon a chair as she demands the gift-shop concession in the casino as part of her payoff. She expresses her need to "die rich," says she is positioning herself to do just that and to live the good life in the meantime.

Finally, Walker negotiates the sort of vote deal worthy of any of her sleazy Irish counterparts in Chicago.

Walker discusses with Vincent a "loan" of up to $750,000 so she can open a record company.

Carolyn, baby, you're beautiful. Here's a little suggestion. For your first artist, sign rap star L.L. Cool J. He had that monster hit last year, "Big Old Butt."

With pinky rings flashing, gold chains sparkling and suitcases of cash inviting, Vincent's pose as a Vegas wise guy was so convincing that lawmakers and lobbyists alike began talking like capos from Palermo to ingratiate themselves.

Lobbyist Ronald Tapp (took $39,080) wants fellow fixer Gary Bartlett (took $7,500) rubbed out because Bartlett talked too much. This posturing is such grand, Italian opera. When was the last time someone whacked a lobbyist?

All-state greaseball Representative Bobby Raymond, hair slicked and razor cut, is quick to master the mobster patois, though like a high school hard guy he isn't quite ruthless enough for the big time: "I guess I'll do anything except stick an ice pick up someone's nose."

Gee, Bobby, there goes your olive-oil concession.

Still, Raymond insists that when it comes to being a mindless whore, he is every bit the tramp Walker is.

"I don't give a fuck about issues . . . there is not an issue in this world I give a shit about. I do deals," says Raymond.

Raymond (took $12,105) adds that his favorite expression is, "What's in it for me?"

What's in it for Bobby is five to ten with time off for good behavior, if he's lucky.

And then there's Jesus "Chuy" Higuera.

He's a rare one.

Chuy (took $4,040) wants more than the cash he is given. In return for his vote, he wants the shrimp concession at Vincent's new casino.

Routinely identified at the Arizona State Capitol as a man blessed with the brains God gave an agave, Chuy must have caused the Las Vegas-based Vincent to wonder: Who is this dwarf? What shrimp concession? Does he think there's a shrimp concession at Caesar's Palace?

Vincent, of course, would have no way of knowing that Chuy's style is much closer to the blue-collar gambling charms of Laughlin, Nevada, than Las Vegas. In fact, at the Colorado Belle casino in Laughlin, they indeed had shrimp carts a year ago. And everyone from Arizona, at one time or another, has visited Puerto Penasco, just south of the border. Chuy, no doubt, has smuggled back a couple of Styrofoam ice chests of shrimp in his car trunk like the rest of the turistas. The "Big Blues" run $5 a pound in Mexico and as much as $14 a pound in your local supermarket.

So here's J. Anthony Vincent spinning out multimillion dollar tales of gambling, and Captain Camarones thinks his shrimp boat has come in. Higuera had fantasies of all the little Chuys in his clan out on the casino floor with their colorful pushcarts hawking, "Getta you shrimp, Getta you ice cold shrimp."

That's the ticket, Chuy. You're a regular Michael Milken, you are.

Walker, Raymond, and Higuera are not the only droolers begging for bibs of greenbacks on videotape--they are merely the most stupid and offensive.

The man who identified himself as the King Rat in this cesspool was Representative Don Kenney (took $60,250). Here was the legislator that Vincent and his lobbyists hired as their point man. This goomba, on camera, stuffs tens of thousands of cash dollars into a gym bag and advises Vincent that the way to persuade reluctant legislators to vote for casino gambling in Arizona is to blackmail his colleagues over their sexual practices. Kenney was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

This legislative sting orchestrated by the Phoenix Police Department and leveraged with unheard of quantities of cash is so debauched in its gothic proportions that only a team of journalists like Randy Collier and Charles Kelly could introduce it properly.

Collier and Kelly are every bit as eccentric as the once-in-a-lifetime story they are working.

No reporter in Arizona has better police connections than Collier, and that's not surprising; the cops recognize, and like, a Damon Runyon character when they see one.

After his trips to Latin America, it was believed that Collier's most creative prose was found in his expense reports. Collier is a man not blind to life's angles, and insurance agents can only speculate as to the number of neck braces in Collier's Chrysler. The man's status as a legend was secured when a frustrated mangagement banished him to a remote zone, far away from the more prestigious city desk; Collier promptly fell down upon the floor at work with what he identified as a heart attack but what vicious rumor labeled a successful ploy for reassignment downtown. Gossips are unable to alibi how it is that Collier regularly turns out the most compelling articles in the Sunday paper.

Kelly has one of Arizona's largest collections of books on crime and is a walking directory of the inconclusive details behind the murder of fellow journalist Don Bolles. A crack shot after years of training and practice, Kelly is one of the few gun nuts to have mastered the art of the elegant sentence. During a certain period of his life, he hung out in the poker casinos of California looking for action.

In Collier and Kelly, we have two men whose entire careers have pointed them toward this story.

Journalists can detail the latest expose, but how do you explain public life in Arizona to yourself? What world view accounts for Charles Keating, Senators John McCain and Dennis DeConcini, impeached ex-governor Evan Mecham, the votes on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the loss of the Super Bowl, Rose Mofford, the multimillion dollar corruption in the State Department of Education, Keith Turley, Karl Eller, Pinnacle West, Gary Driggs, Gene Rice, Terry Goddard, Fife Symington, and now nineteen indicted legislators and lobbyists?

There simply isn't grammar or syntax, let alone philosophy, to rationalize such goings-on. It all makes about as much sense as one of those Megopotomian war communiques from Saddam Hussein: "We will pluck out the eyes of the infidel invaders and desecrate their brazen idols with the blood of our goats."

Say what?!!

I'm not naive. I don't expect someone the likes of Representative Sue Laybe to sit around discussing the Federalist Papers, but neither do I expect to turn on my television and watch her counting out $10,000 in a cash bribe from some Wayne Newton wanna-be that she's known for all of twenty minutes.

Chief Ortega's videos are like so much grainy smut; no matter how titillating you find them, you always feel like you need a shower afterward.

And now, of course, the hills are alive with the moaning and chest-thumping of politicians claiming they were entrapped or posturing about the future of Arizona.

The senators and representatives have no one to blame but themselves.

For years they have passed every police-state law pressed upon them by Attorney General Bob Corbin and his aide Steve Twist. Prosecutors and cops were patted on the head and told to go out and run their stings. Chief Ortega's speech where he revealed plans to have his officers sell dope on the streets of Phoenix to see who would buy, to see who could be entrapped, drew hardly a comment.

Prosecutors and cops were given the authority by this legislature to amass millions of dollars in cash and assets from dubious seizures of assets to finance stings.

No public accountability was required. The politicians never thought they'd become targets. The legislators assumed Chief Ortega would be content going after the rest of us.

This is where such careless thinking has led: There is nothing inherently evil about blackjack. Churches have run gambling fund raisers for years. Civic leaders opposed legalized casinos not because roulette is immoral but because organized gambling produces such stupendous amounts of cash that corruption always follows.

Ironically, the statehouse wrote legislation that put Police Chief Ruben Ortega in charge of the sorts of cash reserves normally handled by Meyer Lansky.

And Ortega is politically ambitious enough to know just how to spend his loot.

While the legislators are belatedly crying out about civil liberties, Chief Ortega and County Attorney Richard Romley are orchestrating a press campaign that includes juicy indictments and police-escorted viewings of salacious videotapes for reporters.

Ortega and Romley are every bit as self-serving in this circus of corruption as Walker, Kenney, Higuera, and Raymond.

In the end, you can't help but ask yourself if there is anyone in Arizona who isn't on the take.

On February 4, newscasters informed us that pipe bombs had been attached to chemical tanks outside the massive military installations at Norfolk, Virginia. On Sunday, February 10, we learned that the bombers weren't Iraqi terrorists as the FBI originally speculated; they were just another two guys from Arizona running an insurance scam.

Hey, when do they take out their nomination petitions?

And two weeks from now, we're supposed to find the motivation to vote for either J. Fife Symington III or Terry Goddard for governor, two men whose campaigns are mired in charges of financial irregularities and self-dealing.

I've got a better idea.

I suggest we learn a lesson from the Iranians who charged Iraqi trenches with human-wave assaults. Rather than expend the life of one Marine in the sands of Kuwait, let's send battalion after battalion of corrupt Arizona public officials to attack the Republican Guards. With sheer numbers alone, we can wear out the Iraqi gunners. It's not like we'll be sacrificing the flower of our youth, or the best and the brightest . . . I'll give you a shrimp concession, you moron!

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