The Tony and John Show

Ten years of greasing the wheels for a real estate big shot make Tony West a spooky choice for voters

I've known Tony West for years, and privately, West can be a very charming and nice guy.

But if West is elected to the Arizona Corporation Commission, the agency that regulates securities and utilities could suffer an ethical meltdown.

Here's why: Tony West, Arizona's current state treasurer, is impressed by people who make a lot of money, no matter how they make it. During his decades as an elected official--he was a legislator and state senator before becoming treasurer seven years ago--he's done some serious stumping for a real estate speculator with a checkered business history.

His name is John Stiteler. He is West's friend, adviser, and current campaign finance manager. From 1987 to 1995, West worked for Stiteler as a salesman.

Stiteler owns The Stiteler Companies and is famous for forming "Exeter" real estate limited partnerships. Not all of those partnerships have paid out. Stiteler's real estate career has left a contrail of bitter investors, bankruptcies and tax liens. But none of that has stopped Tony West from doing his bidding.

In 1988, when West was still a state senator, he tried to sell the Arizona State Retirement System pension fund a Stiteler real estate "opportunity" involving raw land in the alleged path of a freeway. Fortunately, the guys who controlled the fund turned down the offer, because the project went bankrupt a few years later. West saw no ethical breach, and Stiteler claimed he was unaware of West's efforts to sell to the state.

In 1990, West approached a smaller, different state retirement system, which manages the retirement trust funds of Arizona's firefighters, elected officials, judges, police officers and prison guards. He helped Stiteler broker a $600,000 deal with that fund.

Then Stiteler used his connection to bring another outside real estate deal to the same board. Stiteler's developer got $13.7 million from the board, and he paid Stiteler $137,000 for providing the entree. And this year that same developer, Francis Najafi, and his brother Jahm together donated $7,500 to Tony West's corporation commission campaign.

In 1993, former governor J. Fife Symington III nominated Stiteler to sit on the investment advisory board of the multibillion-dollar Arizona State Retirement System. West and Symington's then-chief-of-staff, the late George Leckie, pushed to get Stiteler's nomination approved by the Legislature.

Stiteler got on the advisory board, and started pushing the state to consider speculative investments--like real estate.

But Stiteler resigned after state retirement officials, who remembered the earlier Stiteler deal West had pimped and they had rejected, went public with their concerns. Newspapers reported on Stiteler's string of bankruptcies and six-figure tax liens. Stiteler was clearly not the sort of businessman one would want to advise the state on where to invest its retirement monies.

Stiteler blamed the press for his ouster, whined that reporters had created a big melodramatic scare over nothing, unnecessarily upsetting elderly retirees about the safety of their money.

If West had been smart, he would have dumped Stiteler right then and there.
Instead, West got ugly and insulted state retirement officials who opposed Stiteler.

And West continued to be blindly loyal to his boss and pal.
Once he was elected treasurer, West got Stiteler to sit on an informal board that advises the treasurer on how to handle millions in the state treasury.

West and his advisers figured out a way to make the treasurer's office look good--by charging other agencies fees to handle their money. So far, charging such fees has created a $6.2 million "profit" for West's agency. He boasts in his campaign literature that the state treasurer's office is a "Profit Center." But the "profit" comes from feeing the hapless agencies that are required by law to deposit all their funds in the state treasury.

To West's credit, he did implement an online investment accounting system for the $6.2 billion state treasury. But that also grooms the office for the passage of Prop 102, which would amend the state constitution to allow the state treasurer to invest state dollars in risky equities, or stocks, as opposed to safer government bonds. Prop 102 has West's fingerprints all over it, and, if it passes, will unnecessarily open our state coffers to possibilities for mischief-makers--like unscrupulous brokers.

Term limits prohibited Tony West from running again for treasurer. It's too bad for West, since he worked out a sweet deal for himself in 1994. That's when he resigned as treasurer for three days to take advantage of a loophole in the law that enabled him to collect his $37,000 state pension and his $54,600 salary as treasurer at the same time.

When West decided to run for Corporation Commission, his friend Stiteler stepped up to be his campaign finance chairman.

Which brings us full circle to the reason Tony West should not be elected to the Arizona Corporation Commission.

If West is elected, every developer in town will understand, based on past procedure, that to gain access to West, you go to John Stiteler. And lots of developers need the cooperation of the Corporation Commission for lots of things:

* The Corporation Commission regulates small water companies that developers sometimes start up in rural subdivisions.

* The Corporation Commission regulates some sales of land partnerships.
* The Corporation Commission resolves conflicts over telephone, water, gas, sewer and electrical easements in developments.

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