Jesus Wouldn't Do That

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

Joseph Stedino, the Cadillac-size Mafioso, shoved wads of cash toward Bobby Raymond, a state legislator who looked like an altar boy holding a collection plate.

Stedino bribed the politician to secure off-reservation, goombah-style gambling in Arizona. Public servant Raymond promised action and plenty of it.

To establish street cred with the gangster, the legislator eschewed his oh-my-gosh appearance in favor of a little omertà aftershave: "I do deals," said Raymond. "I don't give a fuck about issues. There is not an issue in this world that I give a shit about."

Shortly after the 2002 primary, Trent Franks quietly began to take PAC money.
Shortly after the 2002 primary, Trent Franks quietly began to take PAC money.
Republican Rick Murphy refuses to accept PAC money.  
He faces Trent Franks in the September primary.
Republican Rick Murphy refuses to accept PAC money. He faces Trent Franks in the September primary.

The authorities, who'd staged the bribery in 1990 as part of AzScam, a government sting, turned the tapes over to news stations that broadcast them feverishly. I do not know when television ever captured the public's preconception about politics more vividly.

Seven legislators pleaded or were found guilty in court and more were ruined. Prosecutors charged Bobby Raymond with political corruption and locked him up in prison. Finding himself as infamous as any smuggler in a tuneful Mexican drug corrido, the legislator pulled two years.

When Raymond, a felon, walked out of his cell, he no longer had the right to vote.

But Raymond did not forget the taste of politics.

Arizona Congressman Trent Franks took a $500 contribution from Raymond last summer.

Bobby Raymond still did deals. And Congressman Franks, a vociferous Christian fundamentalist and self-professed fiscal conservative, is so broke he shamelessly took cash from a known felon busted for political corruption.

Let's establish a couple of facts.

First, this is not a case of mistaken identity. Congressman Franks knows who Bobby Raymond is; hell, everyone knows who Bobby Raymond is. But Congressman Franks especially knows who Bobby Raymond is because they ran against each other back in the day for a House seat in District 18 with the soon-to-be felon winning by 200 votes.

Second, this is not a case of deep political corruption. Far from it. Congressman Franks is like one of those buffoons you stumble across in the back chapters of a Mark Twain novel. With broken fedora, busted brogans, and torn jacket, our hero cannot sell enough medicinal elixir to stay solvent. He is so inept with money that he is sober against his will. Someone else will have to buy the next round.

Rick Murphy, in contrast, is a self-sufficient man. In the age of giant media conglomerates, he made his own way, grew a business based in the rough and tumble environment along the Colorado River. You talk to people who grew up with him and they tell you he is old school, pays his bills, and lives by his handshake instead of his contracts. He's a standup guy.

When he ran for Congress in 2002, Franks promised never to take money from Political Action Committees because he claimed the lobbyists who fund PACs wanted favors for their checks. But if Franks is so desperate that he vacuumed cash from the guilty and incarcerated, perhaps you won't be shocked to learn that the Congressman has gone back on his word and these days inhales PAC donations like Mississippi River riff-raff heedlessly gorging on a slops bucket.

Now that Franks is in a Republican primary race for reelection against radio entrepreneur Rick Murphy, the Congressman's tattered ethics stand out like chin stubble.

Candidate Murphy, after all, does not need PAC money and refuses to accept it.

Rick Murphy erected his first radio tower in Parker, Arizona, in 1974, and at the age of 24 was the youngest man ever to hold an FCC license. He built and owned 19 stations from Salt Lake City to Palm Springs. He still controls five stations, but the revenue from those he sold made him a millionaire several times over. While financial independence makes it easy for Murphy to reject donations from PACs, it is also consistent with his outlook generally.

"I don't like feeling obligated," said Murphy in a recent conversation. "I'm not taking PAC money. I look at it as special interest money. I prefer to be a free thinker."

Franks didn't return repeated phone calls seeking comment. But his record speaks for itself.

The Congressman's sleaze with PAC funding and campaign finance is aggravated by two remarkable priors: First, he needs the special interest money to satisfy personal debt; second, his inner circle is, and always was, tainted by the three stooges of Arizona political ethics -- Evan Mecham, Charles Keating and J. Fife Symington III.

You add AzScam's Bobby Raymond to this unholy trio and you need a computer to tally all the indictments.

Although he relentlessly touts himself as a fiscal conservative, Congressman Franks' claim amounts to identity theft. Nearly two decades of public life rattle with back taxes due, tax liens, lawsuits, judgments, car repossession, expired auto tags and federal fines. For much of this period, he nickel-and-dimed taxpayers until you could picture him wandering around church picnics with a Post-it note on his forehead that read: "Deadbeat."

If Congressman Trent Franks was your brother-in-law, you would fire your sister.

But he's not some shirt-tail relative with a series of get-rich scams. He has moved from working oil and gas leases to serious debt on the public dole.

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.

Congressman Trent Franks clutches a Bible to his breast as justification for holding office the way that a swashbuckler uses a parrot as part of the get-up.

Franks' loud Christianity prompts him to challenge laws separating church and state. He is insistent that prayer, Christian prayer, specifically, must be reinserted into the classroom. More alarmingly, he supports a pro-life stance that is breathtaking in its virulence.

Here is an example of what I am talking about:

In his first bid for Congress in District 2, he distributed a faith-based tape to selected households. The film carried a note from the candidate's wife who wrote that Franks' "deep Christian faith and courage have always sustained our family."

The video featured a speaker from Mission Media.

Mission Media is interesting on a number of fronts. Based not in Arizona but in Idaho, records at the Secretary of State's office in Boise show that it is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation that, amongst other things, makes religious videos about missionary work.

In 2002, the Franks campaign paid Mission Media $3,000. In the campaign video, Mission Media's board officer, Michael Boerner, appeared urging viewers to vote for Franks.

Yet the articles of incorporation state clearly that as a 501(c)(3), the business "shall not participate in statements, any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office."

Mission Media apparently violated both the spirit and the letter of the law. On July 7, 2003, Mission Media was administratively dissolved by the state of Idaho "for failure to file the required annual report . . ."

Though reinstated this year, the company and the Franks video are a stark reminder of what happens when church, state and demagoguery mix.

In the video, Franks declared that abortion is "the greatest human holocaust in the history of mankind."

In a choreographed video, there are no slips of the tongue. Nor is this the first time that Franks shed any pretext of civil discourse.

In 1987, within weeks of his appointment as director of Governor Mecham's Office for Children, Franks informed a women's group that Planned Parenthood engaged in "murder for profit."

After September 11, 2001, I think decency ought to compel religious zealots to loosen the grip upon public microphones, legislative ballots and incendiary rhetoric. Franks mailed his "holocaust" tape less than a year after the terrorist attack.

Murphy, for the record, is pro-life except in cases of rape, incest and threats to the mother's life. But he finds Franks' "murder for profit" crack simply "unreasonable."

"How do you respond to something like that?" wondered Murphy.

You might well wonder how someone who is such a thoughtless exemplar of Christian values could win a seat in Congress. The answer is that Franks' election flabbergasted most. In a crowded primary in a Republican district, 73 percent of the voters chose someone else; he prevailed with only 27 percent of the vote. His appeal rested upon relentlessly selling his faith as well as his fiscal restraint.

Here was God's servant, a man who would not accept money from PACs, a man who would always vote to lower taxes, entitlements, and debt because special interests had no claim upon his soul.

Yet during his first year in Washington, his sermonizing about the hereafter was quickly replaced by a quiet respect for the here and now.

Facing six-figure personal debt, Franks abandoned his moral stand on PACs and took checks from big business lobbyists like a Dan Rostenkowski staffer. At one point, Franks had a higher percentage of PAC funds in his war chest than any member of Congress.

The man had bills to pay. He made no secret of the pressure. His own campaign owed Trent Franks more than $300,000, and big business had an open checkbook.

And yet, the Congressman needed more.

Franks took out a loan of $219,000 on his home in Glendale on July 3, 2003, according to records on file at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office.

By the time he returned to the halls of Congress in the fall, Trent Franks was staring down the barrel of more than a half-million dollars of personal debt.

That autumn his much-touted governmental parsimony evaporated like gun smoke in a hurricane.

In November, legislators considered a staggering expansion of the entitlements under Medicare. The bill, widely hailed as a giveaway to insurance companies, hospitals and doctors, promised to generate staggering debt. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the package would cost more than $400 billion over 10 years and an estimated 20 percent of seniors would lose their employer-sponsored insurance coverage.

"The legislation most reminds me of the ancient medieval practice of leeching," announced Senator John McCain. "Every special interest in Washington is attaching itself to this legislation and sucking Medicare dry. We do not need leeching; what we need is reform."

Congressman Franks announced his opposition to the bill, then went so far as to sign a written pledge to fight against the legislation. But in the end he became the swing vote to pass the bill, literally, in the midnight hour.

Murphy finds Franks' Medicare vote appalling.

"I would never have voted for that," said Murphy. "He signed a pledge promising he would not vote for that bill. A guy ought to be strong enough to say no and mean it. I never would have voted for that legislation, and the issue needs to be revisited. Drug prices have gone up at three times the rate of inflation since that bill passed."

If consumers pay more for prescriptions and seniors lose coverage, there was one clear winner following the Medicare vote.

Guess who?

PAC money from the medical establishment started to flow toward Congressman Franks. In March, the American Hospital Association gave him $1,000. A week later, it gave him another $1,000. That same month, the American Society of International Pain Physicians gave him $1,000, as did the Physical Therapy PAC. In June, CIGNA threw in $1,000. Executives from Blue Cross, Sun Health, Arrowhead Healthcare, Tri-West Health -- they all did their part. Doctors, too, began to notice Congressman Franks.

In 2002, Franks swore he would never take PAC money. In this election cycle alone he took a quarter of a million dollars, according to public records, with more on the way.

By the time he took $500 from AzScam felon Bobby Raymond, Congressman Franks had a long history with Arizona's most wretched and corrupt public officials. As recently as last month, he underscored his willingness to hang with those who should be hanged.

Congressman Franks' core mentors look like the front row of a Johnny Cash Folsom Prison concert. The lineup includes: notorious multimillion-dollar swindler and current ex-convict Charles Keating; impeached and disgraced governor Evan Mecham; prosecuted, convicted, overturned-on-a-technicality, pardoned pension-fund looter, pastry chef and former governor J. Fife Symington III.

Can you hear that lonesome whistle cry . . . ?

Having lost his seat in the House in 1986 after a single term, Franks landed as director of the Governor's Office for Children in 1987. Franks' appointment drew flak like a German Zeppelin over an English day care center during the Great War.

Identifying himself as "an oil field consultant," Franks' credentials for the appointment by the cartoonishly dysfunctional Governor Evan Mecham consisted of a couple of engineering classes. Unhindered by a college degree, Franks stressed his lack of academic pretension when he proclaimed that a diploma "is not necessarily proof of an educated person."

A sheepskin might, however, signal the ability to count without fingers and toes, a talent that came into question in this case when Franks proclaimed that he would protect children, "regardless of age."

Public response from child advocates at the time to the appointment hit a consistent, unhappy tone: "I had never heard of Mr. Franks until yesterday," or, "It really is, I'm afraid, the end of an era," and, "This gentleman doesn't enjoy the greatest reputation."

With no training, no education, no degree, no program, no children of his own, no reputation, Franks rolled up his oil-stained sleeves, went to work and promptly sought to grease the palm of the infamous Charles Keating.

Not yet indicted and jailed for looting savings and loans, and with the Keating Five influence-peddling scandal still over the horizon, the developer was, nonetheless, a man of reputation who'd fled Cincinnati for Phoenix after a good tarring from the Securities and Exchange Commission related to sharp business practices. Keating built subdivisions in Arizona and organized charity events to fund legal challenges to the sex industry and adult magazines.

Keating's pornophobic obsessions lined up nicely with Franks'.

Franks announced that he would use the Office for Children to rid the state of kid pornography, an issue heretofore invisible in the face of documented and unprecedented levels of childhood poverty in Arizona.

Franks spent $47,000 of taxpayers' money in February 1988 to host a conference at Keating's Crescent Hotel in Phoenix. Coincidentally, Keating, his wife and business associates had already donated more than $13,000 to Franks' earlier campaigns for the state Legislature.

Though state code demanded three competitive bids for any expenditure over $10,000, Franks ignored the law as if it were a tax. Franks simply booked the event at his "friend's" resort.

Within weeks of the conference of teenagers at Keating's hotel in 1988, the Arizona House of Representatives voted a bill of impeachment against Franks' champion, Governor Evan Mecham.

Mecham's offenses were as numerous as they were grievous: obstruction of justice, witness tampering, money laundering, pilfering public funds, false financial statements, and phony campaign income and expenditure reports.

The financial irregularities alone involved more than one million dollars.

When the Senate dutifully impeached the state's chief executive, Franks resigned his post but defended Mecham, claiming against all evidence that the state's chief executive was "never given the chance to be the governor he wanted to be" because of "deliberate distortion of the man's real intentions by the media and others in politics."

Beyond the ample legal case presented for impeachment, Franks' stand ignored Mecham's vivid social doctrine, which included the repeal of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as his first official act and the governor's later defense of the term "pickaninny" as a textbook reference to black children.

While Franks' association, indeed his defense of the politically corrupt, extends back through the decades, he has also managed to stay current.

On July 17, former governor J. Fife Symington III hosted a gala fund raiser at his Scottsdale residence for Congressman Franks. Donors were asked to cough up $4,000 each for the opportunity to pose for photographs with Franks, guest of honor Newt Gingrich, and Symington, a dubious lunk who has reinvented himself as a pastry chef.

Eight years ago, Symington, while governor, was indicted on 23 counts by a federal grand jury involving bank fraud and pension fraud with more than $100 million at stake. This followed the Project SLIM bid-rigging scandal that smeared him personally as well as his administration. Symington's 1997 conviction on banking and wire fraud was overturned on a technicality in 1999. In 2001, as prosecutors weighed a second trial, President Bill Clinton announced a stunning pardon as one of his last acts in office.

Bobby Raymond's role in AzScam made his name in the state's largest public corruption case. Charles Keating's reputation as a swindler hinged upon his culpability in the nation's unprecedented savings and loan collapse. Evan Mecham achieved lasting infamy beyond his financial criminality and impeachment as the looniest chief executive in recent memory. And former governor J. Fife Symington III represented all that was indictable in a craven developer's greed.

Congressman Franks' capacity for forgiveness is inspirational.

E-mail michael.lacey@newtimes.com

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