Garden Parties

Campaign funds from the big house, tales from the greenhouse

Check, Please

The Spike was intrigued by recent campaign finance disclosure records filed by Jan Brewer, the departed Maricopa County Board of Supervisors chair who quit that office to run for Secretary of State.

It seems that more than 40 jail employees coughed up more than $5,000 in cash at a November 17 fund raiser held in the backyard of Thelda Williams, one of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's top administrators. That was three months before Brewer had even announced she'd be seeking the Secretary of State's office, although she'd filed paperwork in mid-October to set up an exploratory committee.

The Spike has always been under the impression that county jail guards are woefully underpaid. But that didn't seem to stop them from lending a fiscal hand to Brewer, who, at the time of the fund raiser, held direct sway over the division of county government that includes the sheriff's office.

Those gathered at the fund raiser included jail detention officers, administrators, legal advisers and their spouses. Nearly all the MCSO personnel dished out $110 contributions.

"I just made the backyard available," says Williams, inmate programs division commander. "There were a lot of sheriff's employees there, people I work with all the time."

Helping drum up money for Brewer was Chief Deputy David Hendershott, who, coincidentally, had been meeting with Brewer on a regular basis over the past year as part of his controversial double-dipping salary settlement with the county.

Just two weeks before the fund raiser, Hendershott got most of a significant pay raise for which he'd been battling the county -- from $90,000 to $110,000 annually.

Then, two weeks before Brewer resigned her supervisor seat in mid-February, Hendershott got the final increase he'd been seeking, bringing his pay to $120,000.

Back-scratching all around? The Spike certainly thinks so.

But one more subplot was also playing out. Could it be that Thelda Williams had more on her mind than being the perfect hostess?

Williams, a former Phoenix council member who briefly was mayor, wanted the seat being vacated by Brewer. Arpaio was lobbying hard for Williams to get the appointment, but the slot went to West Valley real estate broker Max Wilson.

Biodumb?

It took almost half a million dollars a year, but last week Arizona State University bought itselfa new president in the body of Michael Crow,the vice provost for research at Columbia University.

Crow says he'll focus on boosting undergraduate education at ASU, not drumming up research dollars.

And that may be a good thing, in The Spike's opinion, if past practices are any indication. Crow is the guy who snatched up the ecological white elephant known as Biosphere 2 when a Texas billionaire wanted out.

The oversize greenhouse just north of Tucson captured the hearts and minds of joke writers in the early '90s when a group of "scientists" who looked more like rejects from a Star Trek convention jumpsuited up and locked themselves in the multihabitat glass dome for two years. Rumors of unsanctioned pizza deliveries spread through southeast Arizona and, with a $200 million price tag, Biosphere 2 became a very pricey punch line.

Although little else came from it, the experiment did beget a very bad movie, Biodome, in which university students sneak into a Biosphere-esque structure and party in the marsh. And last year some college students in San Diego premièred an opera, Biospheria, based on the Biospherians' experiences inside.

The wacky lockdown approach at Biosphere 2 actually ended in 1994, when Ed Bass, the Texas businessman who originally bankrolled the project, kicked the current Biospherians out (he even had to get a court order) and started looking for someone to save Biosphere 2. He found Michael Crow and Columbia University.

Columbia took over in 1996 and has poured tens of millions of dollars into the three-acre greenhouse and its 250-acre surrounding "campus." At one time, Biosphere 2 had the attention of the international media, but as the joke element trickled, so did the coverage. For the most part, all that remains is a lot of Columbia-generated boosterism, so it's hard to tell whether any real scienceis coming out of the place.

Steve Bunk (yes, his real name), who writes for The Scientist, visited Biosphere 2 last year. Even under Columbia's eye and dime, it's been tough to replicate the real biosphere, he observes: The artificial ocean doesn't get enough natural light, there is no upper atmosphere and the rain forest doesn't have the right materials on the ground.

Still, it's hard to say if Biosphere 2 is bunk, Bunk tells The Spike, in the best of scientific jargonspeak.

"Scientists often call an experiment 'elegant' if it simplifies real-world variables down to those that give researchers their best chance of producing results that show an obvious cause-and-effect relationship. Bio 2's ecosystems attempt to do that.

"On the other hand, people often question the value of modeling, because of its lack of real-world complexity. In that sense, Bio 2 is like a computer iteration, a synthetic or virtual world. Can it deliver the goods, which means producing accurate predictions about what will happen in a real ecosystem under certain conditions? When I visited, so little ecological research had yet been done there that the question remained unanswered."

So what the heck good is Biosphere 2?

Thanks to an agreement signed by the Clinton administration, Biosphere 2 may eventually be designated a national research facility.

Bunk says the financial viability of Biosphere 2 is also a concern. (No duh.) The facility needs lots of money to sustain itself, and cash doesn't grow in test tubes -- at least not the kind of cash we're talking about here. So Columbia has marketed Biosphere 2 as the ultimate ecotourism destination, and it gets more than 150,000 visitors a year.

The facility is also busy building more student housing -- an article last year in ASU's State Press billed a semester at Biosphere 2 as a way to "escape the pressures of the academic grind." Sounds like the best, most educational aspects of a semester at Biosphere 2 are the opportunities outside the glass house: field trips to the Colorado River and Sea of Cortez and chances to use the world-class telescopes Columbia has brought in to take advantage of the great stargazing in southeast Arizona.

What The Spike really wants to know is: Can you still get a pizza delivered to Biosphere 2?

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