Big Scam Theory

Downtown Phoenix has always had its high points, but the Civic Center boondoggle isn't one of them

Despite the involvement of downtown's top two law enforcement officials, Club 902 was a small story in 1990 compared to the AzScam sting and its Mafia star, Joseph Stedino, a.k.a. Tony Vincent.

Stedino, a petty Nevada wanna-be, came to Phoenix and posed as a Vegas hoodlum looking to legalize gambling by bribing legislators. Stedino was brought in by County Attorney Rick Romley and Chief of Police Ruben Ortega. It was a disgraceful show from start to end. No evidence existed, none, of statehouse corruption. The prosecutors and the cops created crime to entice the weak. Before Stedino finished emptying out his suitcases of cash, he would snare a clutch of senators and representatives caught stuffing greenbacks into gym bags as they sold their votes. The nuances of entrapment were lost before the stunning images on videotape.

As if this wasn't juicy enough, these events took a disturbing twist.

We're spending about a billion dollars in taxpayer funds for Civic Center expansion  to attract the likes of these nametag-wearing conventioneers.
Jackie Mercandetti
We're spending about a billion dollars in taxpayer funds for Civic Center expansion to attract the likes of these nametag-wearing conventioneers.
The Phoenix Civic Center.
The Phoenix Civic Center.

I sat in a downtown courthouse and listened to Stedino tell a judge that he had interrupted his statehouse probe to try to link me to cocaine dealing. In the trial of a senator who fought the charges against her, the defense attorney sought to show that Stedino's activities were often politically motivated, driven by the desire of the county attorney and the chief of police to silence critics. I was Exhibit A.

Stedino testified that he had hung out at a downtown bar and restaurant I frequented, attempting to coax damning gossip about me from waiters, bartenders and customers.

Records of the sting showed that Ortega and Romley's agent, Stedino, began the investigation of me the day after it was announced that Club 902 was being shut down by the state because of my columns. There were those who maintained that this was merely a coincidence.

2003 -- Ignoring Local History

The astronomical number of 375,000 conventioneers holds hands with another whopper, which is that these delegates will each spend 3.37 nights in a local hotel. You take all of these tourists, conjure up an amount you figure they'll spend every day and you multiply it by 3.37. Well . . . soon enough, you'll run out of fingers and toes.

I'm the sort of obsessive reader who examines footnotes. The average of 3.37 nights used in the Pollock study wasn't determined by researching the history of convention hotel use in Phoenix, though such records are kept. No, this is a number trotted out by a national trade organization whose sole purpose is to promote conventions. The darker side of me could not help but pause. If a researcher wanted to understand the true impact of cigarettes on smokers, would the first step be to utilize data from Philip Morris?

After confirming that the 3.37 number was his and not Ernst & Young's, I asked the Pollock group's senior vice president why he hadn't utilized local Phoenix statistics.

"I don't know where you get that information," Merritt replied.

Merritt insisted that his numbers were Phoenix numbers. Which, I was forced to point out, contradicted what he'd written in his own report.

"If you look at your own study, on page seven it says that the 3.37 figure comes from the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus (IACVB) Income Survey. On page six it reads: Figures on spending by convention attendees during the convention are provided by the IACVB.'"

Merritt actually responded that perhaps I was correct but that I should remember that Phoenix was a member of the IACVB.

As are scores of other cities.

When precise numbers, historic numbers, pertinent and accurate numbers are kept locally, why, I asked Merritt, would he resort to spongy national statistics used in trade propaganda?

We returned to silence.

The peaceful interlude was eventually punctured by the ever-helpful David O'Neal, whose name appears nowhere on either the Ernst & Young study or the Pollock analysis.

O'Neal said the records from the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau would have tracked "old delegates" and therefore might be "somewhat off."

This was a stunning defense by O'Neal, a visitor from Orlando, Florida. After all, the trade organization numbers were based, however optimistically, on some sort of national record of old delegates. In fact, the Pollock study states on page six that the IACVB numbers were from 1998.

To O'Neal the questions were all quibbles.

The Civic Center was, he said, "trying to attract the heart of the market with expansion . . . and new numbers."

Very new.

1984 Henry's Shoe Shine Parlo

Henry's Shoe Shine Parlor tucked itself into a crevice in the building that today hosts the Orpheum Lofts in downtown Phoenix. The newspaper clippings on Henry's walls testified to every black celebrity's visit to town.

Henry's staff included the one-armed Lefty, as well as Henry's son, a Korean War veteran who spoke so low and slow that the clarity of his reasoning -- when it eventually pulled into the station -- was as startling as a speckled caboose.

A good shine mixes in equal parts boot black, foot massage and palaver. The guys in Henry's just seemed to know the formula. And if you sat there often enough, someone would tell you a story you could print.

Henry closed the shoe shine parlor and retired.

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