By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Like an Arizona Cardinals fourth-quarter rally that typically stalls just short of pay dirt, the team's long pursuit of a new football stadium – and the Super Bowl – is in serious jeopardy.
New Times has learned that construction of the $355 million multipurpose facility, scheduled to begin in days, could be delayed with the revelation that the Glendale site is home to an undetermined number of protected desert tortoises.
In the next few days, attorneys for a national environmental consortium will seek temporary restraining orders in state and federal courts that would halt construction until it can be determined whether the team violated environmental statutes. Those attorneys say their filings will be bolstered by internal team documents that strongly suggest the Cardinals, and owner Bill Bidwill in particular, conspired to circumvent laws prohibiting the removal of desert tortoises from their natural habitat.
Those documents indicate that Bidwill knew, as early as last March, that several of the protected reptiles had been found on the Glendale location, but he personally instructed a Cardinals employee to remove them without notifying Arizona Game and Fish Department officials. The documents, copies of which were obtained by New Times, show that Bidwill also instructed his employees to keep any information about the animals from the Tourism and Sports Authority – which at the time was deciding between the Glendale site and a competing Mesa location – as well as from Super Bowl and Fiesta Bowl officials.
The desert tortoise is a legally protected species and can only be removed from its natural habitat under strict state guidelines. Developers who find the animals on construction sites must apply for permits before taking the reptiles to special adoption locations. Environmentalists intend to show that Bidwill was advised about these rules but chose to uproot the animals under cover of darkness rather than allow their presence to impede the protracted stadium approval process.
A prolonged legal battle over the site almost certainly would ruin the Valley's chance to land the 2008 Super Bowl, and could also throw into question the Fiesta Bowl's decision to leave its Arizona State University campus home. But its most immediate effect would be felt by the beleaguered Tourism and Sports Authority, which again may be stymied in its plans to sell bonds to pay for construction costs based on the soundness and legality of the site.
"These documents leave no doubt that Mr. Bidwill intended to skirt the law," Farrell says. "We also aren't sure if Bidwill and his henchmen removed all of the tortoises on the site. We're requesting a court injunction against the project until the area can be thoroughly studied. And I mean thoroughly!"
Numerous calls to Bidwill were not returned, and neither were requests for comment from Cardinals vice president Michael Bidwill, a former federal prosecutor.
The team memos, combined with interviews with several Cardinals officials, players and others, detail an alleged conspiracy that might have gone undiscovered except for an unlikely Cardinals whistle-blower who contacted Farrell last month.
"She's a very brave woman, and she's already suffered repercussions," Farrell says. "She knew this might come back and bite her, but she couldn't stand by and watch what Bidwill was doing. Not after she learned about the five babies."
According to his field notes, environmental consultant Warner Shortridge's first indication of something unusual at the Glendale stadium site was a telltale grunt.
The Cardinals had hired Shortridge last March to survey the plot of land and assess what sorts of remediation might be required before construction. But according to the diary-like notes Shortridge kept of his activities that were obtained by Farrell and the environmental consortium, the faint grunting noise drew his attention to a startling sight:
"Observed mid-coitus two specimens of Gopherus agassizii," Shortridge wrote.
Since 1990, desert tortoise populations of the Mojave Desert, west and north of the Colorado River, have been listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tortoises found east and south of the Colorado, such as those in Arizona's Sonoran Desert, are considered to be less at-risk than their Mojave counterparts. However, Arizona tortoises are protected by state and federal laws, and cannot be removed from their natural habitat except under strict rules.
Growing to between six and 14 inches, the slow-moving reptiles feature a high-backed shell and small head, stumpy rear legs and scaled front limbs with tough claws for digging. Tortoises reach maturity at about 20 years, and it's believed they can live up to a century. The animals make few noises other than a grunting that the male emits during mating.
Shortridge began to track the location of the two animals after his initial discovery and estimated the age of the female at 55 years. This, coincidentally, is the same number of years since the last (and only) Cardinals championship season in 1947, when the then-Chicago Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 28-21 in a frozen late-December title game.
His notes also indicate that he immediately forwarded reports of his findings directly to Bill Bidwill, as he'd been instructed.
"Shortridge's notes make it clear that he reported everything to Bidwill. But they also make it clear that Bidwill gave him zero response," says Farrell. "That was a big mistake. If the Cardinals had moved quickly and had come clean about the discovery, studying the area and removing the tortoises under state law might have been a fairly straightforward affair."