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By Ray Stern
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By Stephen Lemons
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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.
That explains why Tony West's campaign finance reports read like a Who's Who of Arizona Developers--Del Webb, Troon North, the Pivotal Group, Value Properties. Thumbing through those reports, I counted at least $28,000 coming from eight developers--a hefty contribution to West's total campaign chest of about $121,000.
Don't forget, Stiteler is West's campaign finance director.
Tony West has said that if he is elected to the Corporation Commission, Stiteler will not exert any undue influence.
After looking at his 10-year track record of intervening for Stiteler, what do you think?
Tony West attended his friend George Leckie's memorial service last week at Saint Barnabas on the Desert Episcopal Church in Paradise Valley. John Stiteler was one of five men who eulogized Leckie.
A failed businessman, Leckie had found a government job as Fife Symington's chief of staff, but was forced to resign from state government in disgrace. After Leckie and Symington's accountant were implicated in a state bid-rigging scandal, the state made Leckie pay a $25,000 fine and sign papers promising not to meddle in state government for three and a half years. Leckie was acquitted on bid-rigging charges at the federal level after his accomplice had died and could not testify against him.
And then Leckie died. About 150 people attended last week's memorial service. Charlie Keating and convicted felon J. Fife Symington III, lobbyists, Christian Coalition politicians and real estate speculators were there with West, and a few of the decent folks who had served with Leckie on the Phoenix Country Day School board or knew him from other associations. Symington talked about what a great public servant Leckie had been for the state; his wife Ann read from the Bible.
Then John Stiteler, gray-haired, tan, fit and looking very much like a television weatherman, stepped up to deliver his eulogy. He talked about Leckie's love of gambling and joked about how Leckie's concept of heaven on earth would be Arizona "without reporters."
Tony West stared at his ex-boss during the eulogy.
The duo, viewed in that context, made it clear to me that Tony West shouldn't be elected to the Corporation Commission.
But don't worry about West; he can get a job in the private sector.
After all, he's got a lot of friends.
Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437, or online at email@example.com