Ambulance Chasers

Winning ambulance contracts? It's all about who you know. (Unless it's about the dirt they've got on you.)

For Cantelme didn't stop with the Phoenix City Council. The firefighters became a potent political force. And because the law forbade them from campaigning for candidates in Phoenix, Cantelme formed regional alliances, says Rick DeGraw, a former political consultant who now works in public relations. (DeGraw himself copped to a misdemeanor in the bribery sting.)

Phoenix firefighters campaigned in Glendale. Glendale firefighters campaigned in Chandler.

A host of fire departments ended up joining the Phoenix Fire Fighters Association: Glendale, Chandler, Peoria, Tempe. Each department got a vice president -- and they all answered to Cantelme.

Pat Cantelme
Giulio Sciorio
Pat Cantelme
Billy Shields, president of the union Pat Cantelme built, is supporting his old friend.
Giulio Sciorio
Billy Shields, president of the union Pat Cantelme built, is supporting his old friend.

The members diversified. They volunteered on nonprofit boards. Cantelme joined the boards of a number of pension funds and, for a while, ran the Central Arizona Labor Council.

The firefighters made friends everywhere they went.

"They built a very broad base," DeGraw says. "When businesses had something they needed to get done, they knew to turn to the firefighters." And when Cantelme needed a favor for his men, there were few players who wouldn't take his call.

When Cantelme retired in 1999, he went into the political consulting business. His firm, Cantelme Kaasa, played a role in electing half the people currently serving on the Phoenix City Council. It also ran Phil Gordon's successful mayoral campaign.

People who've worked with Cantelme say he's consistently one of the smartest guys in any room. They rave about his memory and his grasp of the details. He is a master of old-school politics. Shields recalls him making a point to come to family funerals, ready with a personal check to show his sympathy.

There's something about him that makes people listen.

In meetings with the community's big guns, the usual suspects talk on and on, reveling in the sound of their rhetoric. During all that, "Pat never says anything," Shields says.

But when the big talkers are done, Shields says, "Pat will start talking, very quietly. And he'll put a solution on the table that just brings everybody together.

"And everybody in the room just goes quiet, looking at him. Everybody knows he's right."

Pat Cantelme first went into business with Bob Ramsey in 1994. But that's not a detail he necessarily volunteers. When he tells New Times the story of how he got into the ambulance business, in fact, he skips five years and starts with his retirement, in 1999, and the company he started with Ramsey in Las Vegas.

He explains that he wanted to use the knowledge he'd picked up organizing municipal service for the city of Phoenix. And that involved partnering up with Ramsey.

"So we started a private company in Vegas," he says.

Later in the interview, he is asked to return to the same point: When did he start working with Bob Ramsey?

"I'd spent 30 years on the Phoenix Fire Department," he says. "After I retired, my partner and I had an opportunity to start a company in Vegas. . . . Because I knew the business from the emergency side, it seemed like a pretty good opportunity."

It is only when asked, again, exactly when he first went into business with Bob Ramsey that Cantelme remembers a company called Southwest General Services.

According to paperwork filed with the secretaries of state in both Arizona and Texas, Cantelme and Ramsey started Southwest General in April of 1994.

The other officers were Barry Landon, who was one of Ramsey's top lieutenants at Southwest Ambulance, and Patrick McGroder, a prominent Phoenix personal injury attorney who recently defended Bishop Thomas O'Brien at his hit-and-run trial.

Three years later, when Ramsey sold his holdings to Rural/Metro, he sold Southwest General Services, too.

Landon and McGroder each got $500,000. Ramsey got $2.6 million.

Cantelme made $2.3 million, according to SEC records.

Financially, it was a huge deal for a municipal firefighter. And it wasn't Cantelme's only profit from a Ramsey company during his tenure as a union officer and city employee.

In 1994, Ramsey hired Cantelme to serve as a trustee for a stock option plan he'd set up for his employees. Cantelme was paid $40,000 a year, according to company records obtained by New Times.

And even though records from the stock plan show that Cantelme only held the trustee position for one year, he continued to earn his $40,000 salary for two more years.

It's not like someone just forgot he was on the payroll. In 1995, he even joined the Southwest Ambulance 401(k).

Cantelme claims that he served as the stock plan trustee for all three years. But that's flatly contradicted by the annual reports that the company was required to file with the Department of Labor. Those reports show that Cantelme did not serve as the plan's trustee after April of 1995.

Ramsey admits that he can't explain why Cantelme stayed on the payroll for another two years after that. He suggests his CFO might have been paying Cantelme without his knowledge.

In the end, both men claim amnesia.

"It's difficult to tell you what I did 11, 12 years ago," Cantelme says.

It's odd that Cantelme, a guy known for his smarts and his good memory, would fail to recall a $40,000 annual salary.

And his initial failure to remember the $2.3 million he earned from the Southwest General Services sale seems even stranger.

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