By New Times
By Connor Radnovich
By Robrt L. Pela and Amy Silverman
By Ray Stern
By Keegan Hamilton
By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
Shortly after that chat, various neighborhood organizations and community groups applied for city grants that support neighborhood safety and improvements. In a council subcommittee meeting, Leija suggested a change to recommendations made by a citizens' advisory group. Leija's proposal would have taken money from two groups--one of them being Chriswell's Blockwatch--and given it to two others.
Even though Leija's proposal failed, Chriswell calls it retaliation. Leija says that there was a duplication of services in Chriswell's neighborhood.
The Big Whistle
Mercy Gomez got involved in politics because she was afraid. She got out for the same reason. A decade ago, Gomez needed help. The gangs that had always been a way of life in her corner of the world near Hayden Park in South Phoenix began dealing drugs. And then they started shooting each other. And one of them was her son.
"He was 13 years old. He was into the gangs. He had a substance-abuse problem. I couldn't get help. I couldn't handle him. The cops couldn't help. He got kicked out of school. "I was telling everybody, 'I don't want to lose my son.'"
She started a Blockwatch organization, and then the Hayden Park Neighborhood Association, of which she is still the president. The association serves a particularly rough neighborhood surrounding Hayden Park, just a few blocks west of Central Avenue.
In 1983, Gomez began serving on the board of South Mountain Youth Development Association (SMYDA) in South Phoenix. The organization sponsors annual Cinco de Mayo and Fiestas Patrias celebrations at South Mountain Park to raise funds for young people in South Phoenix. It was through SMYDA that Gomez first met Mary Rose Wilcox, Solomon Leija and a handful of other politicians. "I cherished Mary Rose," Gomez says, smirking under round, rosy cheeks. "I wanted to be like her. She worked hard to get to her position. She was a mother working for the community and an adviser to SMYDA."
Gomez worked on various Wilcox campaigns. She also worked to get Leija elected, and, two years ago, to help him win the recall election against Ortiz. This year she decided to run against him. And Ortiz was her campaign manager. For a while.
In early August, Gomez announced that she was dropping out of the race because of threats against her and her programs. She feared that the government money that funds the various programs under the umbrella of the Hayden Park Neighborhood Association would be cut in retaliation against her candidacy. Wilcox and Leija supporters, she said, told her, "Don't bite the hand that feeds you."
Both deny having ever heard such a thing.
"Those are really cool remarks, but I never made them," says Wilcox. But Gomez may have reason to be afraid. She has blown the biggest whistle in recent South Phoenix history. Nearly two years ago, Gomez went to the Attorney General's Office with allegations that SMYDA, a nonprofit organization, had misused funds intended for kids.
"When I started the Hayden Blockwatch, I did an incorporation, and I learned the rules of a nonprofit and the money and what a board is supposed to do," Gomez says. "I started asking questions [of SMYDA], about where are the books, and the money. "We would raise money. I worked very hard to raise this money because it was supposed to go to the kids. They would say that we owed money from the last fiesta, but next time we'll have money. And then we would have another fiesta, and it was the same thing. "
The allegations resulted in a grand jury investigation that is still under way. Representatives of the Attorney General's Office have declined to comment on that probe.
Jimmie Mu¤oz, head of SMYDA for about ten years, refused to release the organization's financial records and declined to comment when asked whether the group had filed tax returns with the IRS, as required by federal law.
Arizona Corporation Commission records indicate that the organization has lost its corporate standing for not filing required reports.
Exactly how much money came and went through SMYDA remains a mystery. Where it went is an even larger riddle.
SMYDA's annual reports to the Corporation Commission and fund-raising letters from the nonprofit organization state that its purpose is to raise money for scholarships given to local Hispanic high school and community college students. The group's 1989 articles of incorporation are vaguer, stating that its purpose is to "organize, inform and motivate South Mountain disadvantaged youth in the areas of education achievement, leadership development and community participation and responsibility through filtering monetary funds to targeted South Mountain activities." Officials at South Mountain High School have never heard of SMYDA and have no record of scholarships from the organization.
Renee Hernandez was a member of the Cinco de Mayo pageant--one avenue for scholarships--in 1988 and 1989. Each member of the court had to secure a sponsor to pay for dresses and other pageant expenses, former participants say. In addition, Hernandez says, she sold about $100 worth of raffle tickets and worked at the fiesta. She received a $50 scholarship as a senior in high school. The queen, she says, got from $100 to $200. Even Mu¤oz says the organization never gave out scholarships. "There were not scholarships, we just helped kids in the community," he says. The group appears to have taken in enough money to help someone.