Jesus Wouldn't Do That

Trent Franks is no fiscal conservative. And he's the worst kind of Christian.

None of his current problems should surprise anyone in District 2, which encompasses the west side of Phoenix and Mohave County. He's been a paycheck short from day one.

A one-term state legislator elected in 1984, Franks drove, inexplicably for a young man, a large Lincoln Continental. While he sat in the statehouse, his car sat in the capitol parking lot with out-of-state Oklahoma license plates. The license plates had expired. In 1985, the tags on the car read 1982. The vehicle was never registered in Arizona. Franks explained at the time that he did not have the title.

Okay, Representative Franks, who had the title?

Actually, the bank had the title. The bank had the title because the bank had repossessed the car nearly two years before. The bank was in the process of transferring the title from Oklahoma to Arizona so that the bank could then put a lien on the Lincoln.

Representative Franks admitted at the time that the Lincoln lien was "a little embarrassing to me."

Had anybody searched court records, they would have discovered that, for Trent Franks, the embarrassments had begun long before.

Franks moved to Arizona and ran for office one step ahead of the law.

In 1984, the same year he won his first and only seat in the statehouse, a Texas judge ruled that Franks and his brother owed Halliburton industries -- yes, Vice President Dick Cheney's Halliburton -- nearly $30,000 in principal, interest and attorneys' fees. Five years later, the lawyers were still chasing Franks for the money. In 1989, the parties finally settled. Terms of the settlement remained confidential.

Throughout the '80s and into the '90s, fiscal conservative Trent Franks pushed a new tax theory: If you are short of cash, don't pay the government. He cavalierly ignored his taxes -- and notices to pay back taxes -- forcing the government, federal and state, to impose liens. The nine penalties ran from a substantive personal lien by the feds for nearly five grand, to the picayune of several hundreds. Large and small, he was behind on all before he was eventually forced to make good.

Not much changed when Franks was elected to Congress in 2002.

Last year the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) fined him $4,200 for election fund-raising violations because of lax reporting and recordkeeping.

Franks' sloppy attention to fiscal responsibilities caught up with him on a grand scale during and following the election. In a campaign in which he pitched himself as a fiscal Christian, Franks boldly promised that he would never take checks from any PAC, thereby freeing himself from the corrupting influence of lobbyists.

But his $400,000 campaign left him with $300,000 debt. More to the point, that was money he'd lent the campaign, and the campaign could not pay him back. In other words, his principles about PACs confronted the zeroes in his own checkbook.

Franks attempted to repay himself personally by taking money from special interests. Shortly after the primary, he quietly began to accept PAC money. He took more than $50,000 in the fall of 2002. Campaign finance laws being what they are, Franks was allowed to go back and hit up the corporate donors again for the 2004 cycle.

Within months of taking office, Franks claimed that PAC money was every bit as good as anyone else's. His coffers swelled with cash from special interests. He had to say something.

Franks explained to the press that he now saw that PACs were "people of like mind pooling their resources to have a greater impact on the [political] process, and I have no basic philosophical argument with that at all."

Actually, rather than like-minded individuals such as, say, librarians or police officers, Franks' treasury burst with money from the likes of Raytheon, Boeing, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, Northrop Grumman, and others with federal contracts and a kinship for legislators who sit on the House Armed Services Committee.

One military constituency that has not contributed significantly to Franks is armed services veterans. Although they are organized into groups like the American Legion, veterans' groups' bylaws generally forbid PAC donations.

On March 21, 2003, two days after American troops invaded Iraq, Franks voted to slash veterans' benefits by $28 billion.

Opponent Murphy is genuinely worked up over the hypocrisy. He and his family have been involved in veterans' issues for years. His wife co-founded, and he works on behalf of, American Heroes, a group that purchases fully equipped vans for handicapped vets. Murphy's daughter is the legislative liaison for the veterans' organization.

In our recent conversation, Murphy said you don't send men into combat and cut their benefits. You have to find another way to balance the budget.

"They are playing outrageous games with people in the military right now," explained Murphy. "Guys who get called up who are in the reserves need 24 months of consecutive service to get full benefits. But they take them off duty before the 24 months. Then, when they are reactivated, the earlier duty does not count. You still need 24 consecutive months."

I am as skeptical of Republicans who run for office from a church pew as I am of Democrats who launch from public housing. I think the issues are far too nuanced and divisive to benefit from the sort of zealotry that seizes upon symbols, such as a crucifix, as code talk.

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