REINVENTING THE BIG WHEEL

DERAILED BY AZSCAM, DEMOCRATIC OPERATIVE MIKE CRUSA HAS WAGED HIS BEST CAMPAIGN YET---TO SALVAGE HIS OWN CAREER

It's said that Sam Coppersmith surprised even himself the night he snatched Arizona's First Congressional District from an incumbent Republican who seemed much better suited to the conservative East Valley district. It was called the upset of 1992, a race so close that Coppersmith, a pro-choice Democrat making his first bid for office, didn't officially claim victory until the next day.

Early on that day, as the most ardent Clinton revelers headed for their cars, a lanky, brown-haired man stepped outside election headquarters at Phoenix Civic Plaza and into the cool night air. He slouched with fatigue, eyes watery behind rimless glasses, and headed slowly across the concrete plaza. Like any political consultant after a grueling election, Mike Crusa was exhausted. But his spirits soared. He intended to stick around. His guy, Coppersmith, had won.

So had a bevy of other Crusa clients, including U.S. Representative Ed Pastor, state Senator Chuck Blanchard, state representatives Chris Cummiskey and Phil Hubbard, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and Cochise County Sheriff John Pintek.

Although he hadn't dared tell Coppersmith for fear the campaign would lose momentum, Crusa had predicted a Coppersmith win nine days before the election. He had anticipated voter turnout in District 1 almost to the percentage point and tallied probable results based on telephone interviews with voters in the district. As president of his own political consulting firm, The Summit Group, Crusa makes it his business to know such things. Candidates like Coppersmith trust Crusa to get campaign signs up, conduct polls and run telephone banks, coordinate mailings and do the little things that no one wants to do--little things that separate the winners from the losers. Crusa helps elect people--almost exclusively Democrats--to school boards, city councils, Congress, selling his abilities based on nearly two decades of grassroots campaigning in Arizona.

They hire Crusa because of his track record.
And in spite of it.
Less than two years before that triumphant election night of 1992, Crusa was perilously close to becoming a political pariah.

Sitting in a hearing room at the Arizona State Capitol on March 12, 1991, with his attorney, Stephen Dichter, Crusa told the House Select Committee on Ethics investigating AzScam that then-state representative Sue Laybe had handed him $10,000. He testified that Laybe, whom he characterized as a casual acquaintance, hadn't divulged the origins of the cash, but had asked him to get it into state Democratic party coffers. He said he'd tried repeatedly to get her to return the money to its source, warning her that it might be tainted, but that she wouldn't listen. He said he'd put the money in a safe-deposit box, had even spent some of it, but had brought $10,000 to the authorities when news of AzScam broke. In exchange, the county attorney had granted him immunity in the bribery sting. Crusa also told the committee that he had resigned his position as Senator Dennis DeConcini's state director.

Sue Laybe keeps a transcript of Crusa's testimony before the ethics committee. She's marked passages with an orange highlighter, editorializing with ballpoint pen in the margins: Lie. Lie. Lie. Big, fat lie. Biggest, fattest lie of all.

Laybe says Crusa was her most trusted political adviser, not just a casual acquaintance. She says he never told her to give the $10,000 back, that he told her he put it into a Democratic party account. She says she had counted on him to defend her, to explain that she only wanted to help the Democratic party and that he had told her that what she did was legal.

Immediately following Crusa's testimony, Laybe--the sole AzScam-indicted representative to insist she had done nothing wrong--suddenly reversed her position and quit the legislature.

Laybe went to jail. She served three months as part of a plea bargain after admitting she had accepted more than $24,000 in bribes. The $14,000 that didn't go to Crusa Laybe spent on herself, her campaign and other Democrats' campaigns.

Crusa dropped out of sight for months. The talk around town was that his political career was over; a rumor circulated that he was delivering telephone books.

Then news began to spread of a new consulting firm that was filling the vacuum left by local Democratic consultant Rick DeGraw, who had lost his own business in the wake of his involvement with AzScam. (DeGraw was indicted on nine felony counts and recently pleaded to a much-reduced charge.)

The new player wasn't really new. It was Mike Crusa, whose reemergence in the wake of AzScam has exposed a remarkable Teflon exterior. Phoenix Gazette columnist Dennis Wagner wrote that prosecutors handed Crusa "a get-out-of-jail-free card."

Crusa now counts among his clients the Arizona Democratic party, Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson and councilmembers John Nelson and Salomon Leija, Tempe Councilmember Don Cassano, Scottsdale Councilmember Richard Thomas and Mesa Mayor Willie Wong.

That Crusa has regained so much influence so quickly is testament to his effectiveness as a campaigner. But it troubles some party faithful. One longtime Democrat says she tries to steer party members away from Crusa, but they remind her that he was never charged with a crime.

"Prove that he did anything wrong," they say.
Judson Roberts, one of the prosecutors in the AzScam case, contends that investigators ignored an opportunity to do just that. He remembers urging his colleagues to check Crusa's safe-deposit records, make sure he was telling the truth about what he had done with the money. They refused, choosing to focus more on state legislators.

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