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"Then a call came, and he asked, 'Are you looking for Ramon Gomez, the president? One moment please.' And he turned the phone over to the other side and spoke in a different tone. So he was his own secretary. I thought it was really weird."
Magidson, a 47-year-old Long Island native who runs the maverick consumer-protection Web site badbusinessbureau.com, met Gomez in 1999 after Gomez saw an advisory flier that Magidson had circulated in an effort to protect the rights of Chandler day laborers. Gomez was attracted to Magidson's relentless commitment to consumer rights, and Magidson was impressed by Gomez's oratory skills and his apparent command of the law.
Gomez quickly appointed Magidson president of the Arizona chapter of the National Civil Rights Movement. But Magidson says he gradually determined that there was no actual organization, and that Gomez used media attention to lure, and exploit, poor Hispanics in need of immigration services.
"People are constantly giving him money, but they give him money for work that he never gets done," Magidson says. "What pushed me over the edge is that I recently found that there are a bunch of people in the last few weeks that Ramon took his $600 from for immigration work, and he never got the work done."
Magidson argues that such victims haven't fought back because they're new to the country, generally don't speak English, and are nervous about their own legal status.
One of Gomez's more dubious practices involved taking money directly from clients in need of legal help, then passing the money to lawyers. He acknowledges that it was a bad idea, because it created the appearance that he was pocketing some of the money for himself.
"From now on, the lawyers should be dealing directly with the client," he says. "If they give us the check, and we pass the money on to the lawyers, if people end up unhappy, they'll say they gave us money and the lawyers didn't do any work for them."
While handling the media campaign for Ruelas, Gomez revealed to Magidson (in recorded phone conversations heard by New Times) that he had paid the wrong law firm $5,000 "by mistake" and now needed to find $5,000 to pay Ruelas' attorney, Barbara Spencer, or Ruelas' mother would be breathing down his neck.
Magidson says he helped Gomez out of this jam by lending him $2,500, a contention supported by a promissory note dated November 14, 1999, and signed by Gomez. For his part, Gomez says he never trusted Magidson, so he purposely misled him about his financial affairs.
Beyond the financial questions, Gomez's involvement in the Ruelas case raised eyebrows in the Hispanic community because many Hispanics believed Ruelas was guilty, and they didn't consider his cause a good expenditure of political capital. Montoya, however, credits Gomez with courage in supporting the vilified school counselor.
"It's one thing to be compassionate to the rich and popular, or those that are not rich and popular, but who are not despised," Montoya says. "And I think Ramon is compassionate to the despised, as well. And that's a very noble quality.
"When he came to the defense of Mr. Ruelas, that was clearly a despised person. Even though I think it was ill-advised, because I think Mr. Ruelas was guilty, it was compassionate for him to do that."
Ruelas' mother, Luisa, lauds Gomez as a tireless advocate for her son's cause. "We consider him our guardian angel," she says. "He's like a member of the family."
Gomez's willingness to go to bat for society's rejects can be impressive. James Simon, a convicted sex offender from Mesa, credits Gomez with straightening out problems he was having with his probation officer over an alleged probation violation. He says Gomez saved him from a return trip to jail and refused to take any money for his effort.
"The abused, the poorest of the poor, I take them all in," Gomez says.
But even Gomez's potential allies, most of whom agree that his heart is in the right place, are often confused by his confrontational techniques. They wince at his suggestion, in the wake of the roundup, that Hispanics march through Chandler brandishing pistols. They scratch their heads over the memory of Gomez haranguing the Chandler City Council about how police department saunas were going to lead to orgies within the department.
Diaz says, on one occasion, Gomez's verbal overkill even managed to infuriate the normally sympathetic former councilman Martin Sepulveda. Diaz says a group of Chandler residents had gathered to discuss a possible mayoral run by councilman Matt Orlando. He says Gomez swiftly kicked into a tirade, telling Orlando that if he wanted to run for mayor, he had to remove the chief of police, the city attorney and the city manager. Orlando diplomatically said he'd look into it. That didn't satisfy Gomez, who went on an endless rampage against the city's leaders. Diaz says Sepulveda, in complete exasperation, finally barked, "Listen, you little Mexican Jesse Jackson. Shut up and sit down." It's the only time anyone remembers seeing Gomez willingly surrender the floor.
Sepulveda did not respond to New Times' requests for an interview.