Ambulance Chasers

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

The whole deal is somewhat bizarre. Documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission show two preliminary sales agreements, one from February 1997 and one from that May. In neither agreement is Cantelme mentioned as a shareholder in the company.

Only the final sales agreement shows his name -- in an amendment noting that Cantelme actually owns almost half of the stock previously listed as being owned by Ramsey.

Neither Cantelme nor Ramsey can explain why. Ramsey says he doesn't remember the details. Cantelme offers a long explanation, but it doesn't quite make sense: something about two different companies being merged at the last minute.

And it's clear that Cantelme's initial failure to mention the deals to New Times wasn't a one-time lapse. An October 2 story in the East Valley Tribune, for example, describes Ramsey "recruiting" Cantelme for the Vegas deal, with no mention of any previous dealings.

Billy Shields, who was Cantelme's lieutenant at the time and a good personal friend, says he knew Cantelme was working for Ramsey, even though he didn't know the details.

But Shields is the exception. Most of Cantelme's fellow union officers seemed to have been in the dark until recently.

Brian Tobin, for example, is a Phoenix firefighter who rose to become president of the state firefighters union. He considers Cantelme a friend; a few years ago, they even purchased a condominium together in Rocky Point, Mexico. (Cantelme has since sold his interest in the deal, Tobin says.)

Tobin says he didn't know that Cantelme was in business with Ramsey in the 1990s. He didn't know about the $2.3 million payday.

Neither did Chris Medrea. A Mesa firefighter and former vice president of the state organization, Medrea says he used to hear grumbling that Cantelme was in Ramsey's pocket.

At the time, he responded angrily to the rumors.

Ramsey was, even then, known for his tough dealings with his workers, and the men in the emergency workers union were frequently vocal about their dissatisfaction with conditions at his company.

The rumors, Medrea says, seemed like dirt designed to hurt Cantelme.

"I put my political reputation on the line by strongly arguing to the contrary," he says. "And it concerns me now, because Pat let me do that."

Many firefighters have businesses on the side. It's perfectly legal.

But Cantelme's business was a bit more complicated. After all, the company he and Ramsey owned, Southwest General Services, had a contract with the City of Phoenix -- Cantelme's employer.

A setup like that raises some serious questions.

In fact, during the time that Cantelme had an interest in Southwest General Services, the company handled billing and collection for the city's ambulance service, which was run by the very fire department where Cantelme worked.

According to city records, the contract was worth about $477,000 annually.

While Ramsey secured the contract in 1992, prior to going into business with Cantelme, records show that the contract was set to expire in 1996. At that time, of course, Cantelme was a firefighter, president of the firefighters' union, and one of the company's owners.

And rather than go out for bid or ink a new contract at that point, city officials simply extended the contract for another two years.

By the time it was re-bid in 1998, Cantelme and Ramsey had sold their interest in the company.

The company was clearly worth more with the Phoenix contract than without it; the Phoenix account was one of just three that the company held.

Cantelme says he had nothing to do with the Phoenix contract. He says his sole activity with the company was working on its second big account, one with the city of Dallas.

As he tells it, it was a case of connections leading to a rich business opportunity. Cantelme was friends with the union president in Dallas, he says, and thought he could apply the methods Ramsey was using in Phoenix to help that city get a better rate of return.

Sure enough, Southwest General Services snagged the Dallas account just three months after it incorporated.

"The work I did in Dallas was not related to anything going on here," Cantelme says.

Still, his name was on the corporation's paperwork -- and that corporation had a fat contract in Phoenix, the city where he worked as a firefighter.

Arizona law bars city employees from even having an interest in municipal contracts, unless those contracts are bid competitively. Also, during the bidding process, employees must disclose their interest.

The idea: The taxpayers shouldn't get hosed because a city decides to go with a guy who has connections.

There is no record that Cantelme disclosed his interest in Phoenix. And while the original contract, pre-Cantelme, was bid competitively, there's no record indicating that happened with the renewal.

Renewals are typically not competitively bid, so it's nothing extraordinary. And no one has suggested an investigation. But it does raise ethical questions.

Tim Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, is unfamiliar with the situation. But he believes that, as a hypothetical situation, the facts may point to a violation of the law.

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