Bob's Hope

After a decade of legal battles, the unsinkable Robert Burns is once again shaping his dream metropolis of Sun Valley

But in 1992, Wall Street Journal reporter Ralph King wrote a story detailing how Burns was purchasing tracts of land at fire-sale prices from the RTC at the same time the RTC was suing him. He was allegedly buying the property through straw entities.

A month later, the Phoenix Gazette detailed what appeared to be another audacious Burns deal. In 1992, as the RTC was preparing its massive $1.3 billion civil racketeering lawsuit against Burns and others, Burns and his associates paid the RTC $9 million for a Sedona resort they had bought from Western Savings in 1988 for $23 million.

Legislators voiced outrage. After those stories appeared, the RTC implemented a new policy to screen out buyers who had defaulted on loans. Under the new policy, buyers were required to settle their debts before making deals to purchase property.

Paolo Vescia
The Burnses' parties of the mid- and late 1980s were the political place to be. From left, Paige Burns, conservative icon William F. Buckley, Burns associate Joe Adams, John Teets, former CEO of Dial Corporation, and Robert Burns.
The Burnses' parties of the mid- and late 1980s were the political place to be. From left, Paige Burns, conservative icon William F. Buckley, Burns associate Joe Adams, John Teets, former CEO of Dial Corporation, and Robert Burns.

Some simply called it the "Burns Law."

By the end of 1995, the FDIC, into which the RTC was absorbed, owned three judgments against Burns: $2.5 million for MeraBank loans, $8.25 million for American Savings loans and $6.88 million for Southwest Savings loans.

But Burns paid almost nothing, the government later claimed. FDIC officials said Burns told them he couldn't pay because he didn't have enough assets or money.

Government officials looked for assets but found none. Soon they stopped looking, and it began appearing the judgments would never get paid.

If Robert Burns is an Anglophile, Buckeye's current mayor, the irrepressible cowboy Dusty Hull, is an Anglophobe.

"Look, I don't like the Beatles, never did," he says. "And if I see one more of those British types walk through the door, I'll be the first one to light the fire there."

Hull became mayor two and a half years ago. Before that, he was the town janitor.

He says he became disgusted by the way the town was being run. So he got elected and, with the town council, fired the town manager and, also, immediately canned Buckeye's sister-city program.

"Other mayors have taken their little trips over there -- you can't hide it, it's in the books," he says. "But it isn't going to happen anymore. We're going to run a tight ship."

A month into his tenure, he says, he was contacted by a representative of Phoenix Holdings II who invited him to one of Phoenix's poshest hotels to meet the investors for the Sun Valley project. According to Buckeye's town manager, the group needed Buckeye to approve a development agreement for Sun Valley so it could secure investment funds to start its master plan.

"So I get on my suit from the Salvation Army and drive my Taurus over to this fancy hotel and a guy in a tuxedo parks my car and escorts me into this room with all these big-cushioned chairs," Hull says. "And there is this guy Brent Hickey with all these British guys in these black suits with high-neck collars. I swear, I thought I was meeting the Beatles.

"So we sit down and have these little cups of tea and they said, 'We're so happy you're the new mayor, we're so happy about the new council.' And one of the British guys says how they're going to make Sun Valley this wonderful thing and they asked if I was excited and I said yes. They didn't make a pitch. Then Brent cut out of there because he had to catch a plane to England. Then I left.

"Well, then they misrepresented our meeting to the town manager and one of the city council members. Before I got back to the city limits of Buckeye, they had already told several people that I had promised them $100 million worth of infrastructure back to them over a 10-year period.

"I'm a real street-fighting guy. And now you've lost my confidence."

Joe Blanton, who became Buckeye's town manager in 1998, confirmed that negotiations with representatives of Sun Valley were sour at first.

"They stated that they had the mayor's support, or that they had pitched it to the mayor and he had okayed it."

Blanton says the developers said that since their project would pump $800 million into Buckeye, Buckeye should help out by paying them back $93 million through sales-tax rebates and other mechanisms.

The problem: "The plan could have bankrupted us," he says.

"They would give us a draft of the development agreement, and each time, we'd comment on this section of reimbursement and repayment. It kept appearing. And we kept saying we would not approve it.

"Finally, they hired a new lawyer and the clause disappeared. And since then, everything has gone smoothly."

For Phoenix Holdings II and investors, though, it meant they needed a lot more money. According to sources close to the deal, it meant that once again, Burns had to seek out more European investors.

Phoenix Holdings II is now represented in Buckeye by Craig Hunter. Hunter is a well-respected player in Arizona planning and development circles. He is also American. Blanton, Hull and Napolitano all say they feel comfortable moving forward with the master plans for Sun Valley.

The town has since written a boilerplate development agreement from which no plans are allowed to deviate, Blanton says.

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