By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Renz Jennings, chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission, can't ignore the telephone behind his desk. "We may be the only ones in the building," Jennings tells his visitor as he grabs the receiver. On the other end of the line is a high school student who wants, at 6 p.m. on the evening before her report is due, a succinct description of the most complex office in state government.
"Well, we have a number of functions," Jennings patiently explains, his eyes rolling, just perceptibly. "But probably the most important thing [is that] we set rates for what people pay for utilities--for gas, electricity, telephones and sewer services."
He pauses, waiting for the caller's scribbling pencil to catch up.
"We also have a securities division," he says. "We recently opened a stock exchange. And when a business that wants to relocate or expand here seeks an exemption, some sort of break in utility rates, we either approve or disapprove that. And we also serve as the repository of the state's corporate records. So if someone needs to find out who serves on the board of directors of a company, when it was incorporated or anything, they'd come to us."
With the customer apparently satisfied, Jennings replaces the receiver and returns to the business at hand. In a matter of weeks, voters will decide whether Jennings will retain the seat he's held since 1985, or be replaced by Tom Freestone, a free-swinging Republican from Mesa who for the past 14 years has served on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. Since announcing his bid for the commission, Freestone has blasted Jennings for supposedly not creating enough jobs, and has deplored the chairman's "insensitivity" to the needs of the state's utilities.
Resting on the table in front of Jennings is a case packed with handwritten notes and newspaper stories. He handles these papers--most of which reflect negatively on the competence or judgment of his opponent--with disdain. It's obvious Jennings would rather not dirty his hands, but Freestone is an aggressive, professional politician who's not afraid to play rough to win an election. If Jennings is going to keep his job, he's going to have to hit back.
And so begins the commissioner's counteroffensive.
Jennings contends his opponent is an oily politician who operates on a strict quid pro quo basis. He says Freestone has a pattern of mingling government decisions with personal financial dealings. Freestone was "bought out" of the District 6 congressional race, Jennings argues, and entered the corporation commission contest only because he needs the $54,500 a year the job pays. (Freestone's supervisor's post pays $42,000 annually.)
Five days after Freestone dropped out of the congressional race, he popped up in the corporation commission contest, waving a letter signed by 19 Republican state legislators. Most of these legislators had been at the forefront of a failed movement to strip the commission of its autonomy and place it under the control of the Governor's Office.
Doug Wead, the eventual winner of the District 6 primary, made a contribution of $610--the legal maximum--to Freestone's new campaign. Wead's son Shannon also gave Freestone the maximum amount, as did John Godzich, a wealthy Wead supporter who doubles as finance chairman of the state Republican party. Bill Spiegel, a Wead associate who lives in Springfield, Missouri, contributed $100 to Freestone's campaign. In fact, Wead and his associates gave Freestone more than $3,500, and provided organizational help in his race against Jennings.
Jennings points out that in past campaigns, Freestone has accepted money from the likes of Arizona Public Service Company, Southwest Gas Corporation and AT&T. In this race, Freestone has also received support from Ed J. Robson. Robson, a former prot‚g‚ of Sun City developer Del Webb, founded the Sun Lakes retirement community. According to Freestone's latest campaign finance reports, Robson, his employees and associates have given Freestone at least $1,460. Robson is also the president of Pima Utility, a water and sewage company that provides service to his developments.
Robson says he sees nothing wrong with his contribution to Freestone, and that he expects no special favors. When Jennings first challenged Freestone about Robson's role in Pima Utility, the candidate said he was unaware of Robson's involvement with the company and that he would return the contribution. Now Freestone says he doesn't believe the public cares who gives money to the candidates, and that Robson's utility business is "no big deal." So Freestone's keeping the cash.
While Jennings admits it's not illegal for a commission candidate to accept contributions from a utility PAC or executive, he says the money Freestone has received from Robson and his associates should give ratepayers cause for concern.
"The reason why most, but certainly not all, candidates for corporation commission do not take utility money is that it raises serious doubts about the independence of the commissioner to make proper decisions in a rate case," Jennings says. "After all, you can't expect commissioners to be independent from utilities if they're being funded by them."
Jennings even finds it significant that in this race, Freestone's first campaign headquarters--since moved--was in the shadow of APS offices on Fifth Street. "I came up with a slogan," Jennings says. "If you want to find Tom Freestone, just look for the APS sign.'"