Corporation Commission candidate Sam George is Sam Vagenas with a new name and old tricks

Sam Vagenas is one of the most interesting characters in recent Arizona political history.

As a consultant, Vagenas made an absurd amount of money pushing the pot passions of lefty billionaires John Sperling, George Soros, and Peter B. Lewis in states around the country.

With their financial backing, Vagenas helped pass two pro-marijuana ballot initiatives here, only to see his efforts gutted by the Legislature. (He had to give up his third attempt because its clumsy phrasing would have freed medical marijuana users to deal drugs to kids — and actually required the Department of Public Safety to give out pot, for free. No joke.)

Samuel George, back when he was Sam Vagenas, in this photo from a 1996 New Times story.
Erin Wile
Samuel George, back when he was Sam Vagenas, in this photo from a 1996 New Times story.

Then, as media consultant to former Secretary of State Dick Mahoney, Vagenas was linked to the forgeries that became the biggest scandal of the 2002 gubernatorial race. The documents, faxed to New Times and other publications, purported to be internal memos showing that then-Attorney General Janet Napolitano had covered up the Colorado City polygamy crisis. They were fakes.

Department of Public Safety investigators linked Vagenas to the documents through cell phone records. But he refused to answer questions, and the agency "inexplicably" dropped the investigation, as my colleague John Dougherty wrote at the time.

After that, Sam Vagenas disappeared.

He's back. But now he's Samuel George — and he wants you to vote him onto the Arizona Corporation Commission.


When Vagenas legally changed his name in 2004, it may have been that he simply wanted a more mellifluous moniker. It's hard enough to run for office with a name like Barack Hussein Obama; surely, it can't be any easier to deal with a name that's redolent of genitalia.

But I think it's more likely that Sam Vagenas wanted to unload his political baggage. Most political insiders will give you a knowing look when the word "Vagenas" comes up — he's infamous for playing fast and loose.

The problem is, despite the new name, the same dirty tricks have continued in his career as a candidate.

Samuel George first ran for office in 2006, two years after jettisoning the "Vagenas." His goal? A seat on the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Board — an unpaid seat, I might point out, on a board tasked with the tedious business of supervising the distribution of water from the Central Arizona Project canal. Talk about a snooze.

George spent $57,000 of his own money on his campaign, only to finish dead last.

Then he filed a lawsuit. Unbelievably, for an unpaid seat on a board that attracts little attention or press coverage, George had bothered to hire a pollster to contact nearly 2,000 voters.

The polls suggested, to George at least, that he should have won. Surely, the explanation wasn't that the typical voter couldn't care less about the Central Arizona Water Conservation District and would say anything to get off the phone when asked about it.

No, the explanation was hanging chads.

Sorry — make that undervotes. George's lawsuit claims that the county recorder "failed to properly program the optical scan ballot reading machines." It asked for a hand recount.

Can you believe it? For an unpaid seat on a water conservation board? And George didn't just sue the elected officials supervising the election; he also named the candidates he thought shouldn't win.

That meant they had to hire lawyers, too. Nice.

Court records indicate that George stopped his legal challenge just one day after county workers allowed him to examine the ballots. How much do you want to bet that his findings didn't even begin to support his conspiracy theory?

But Vagenas/George wasn't done. Screw the water district — he decided to run for statewide office.

And even though all four Democratic candidates for the corporation commission are in remarkable agreement about the issues, their primary race this year also has had plenty of controversy.

That's because George and his allies tried to get a rival kicked off the ballot.

They deny this, of course. But here are the facts.

George approached a Flagstaff city councilwoman, Kara Kelty, who'd told state Democratic Party leaders that she was interested in running for the corporation commission. George said he was planning to invest $350,000 of his own money into the campaign and asked if she would want to run as part of his "team," as Kelty confirms.

He wasn't just offering camaraderie.

In debates, George will tell you that he helped to write and pass the Clean Elections law. Surely he knows how he'd be fleecing the Clean Elections system by spending so much money in an uncontested primary.

Clean Elections candidates usually would get just $82,000 in public financing for the primary. But if a self-funded candidate like George pours money into the primary race, the Clean Elections Commission must match the amount — up to $246,000 — for his opponents.

By running on a ticket with a rich, self-funded candidate, Kelty would get the benefit of running as a team, plus a giant cash infusion. Ostensibly, the money would equalize the playing field in the primary. But because George and Kelty would be running as a team, in reality, the cash would boost her name recognition for the general election. And probably his, too.

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12 comments
Oscar
Oscar

I was this guy's college roommate. He was tw--faced, abusive, manipulative, played mind games, etc. It is a main factor in me dropping out.

Anthem
Anthem

Vagenas has already spent nearly half-a-million dollars of his own money in TV ads in an attempt to fool Arizona voters into voting for him and his "team."

Scott K
Scott K

Sarah, Thank you so very much for this story. It makes me sick to see this weaselly game, but it gives me hope that there are honest reporters who will go out of their way to expose corruption, no matter which side of the spectrum sponsors it. Man, I do hope AZ voters wake up in time, though.

Sue
Sue

The Tucson Citizen's editorial board exposed Vagenas for who he is, and quoted the New Times. Please keep this up - the so-called mainstream media is dropping the ball. Vagenas is now buying TV ads - apparently he hopes to buy his way into this office. He is loathed by Republicans and Democrats alike - rightly so. Let's hope Democrats reject him on Sept. 2.

JP
JP

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon supports this guy. God help us!

Susan Di Staulo
Susan Di Staulo

I have known Samuel George since 2003. I assure you there is NO ONE more nobel, kindhearted, compassionate, giving, and honorable. He truly believes, with all his heart, that global warming needs to be addressed with action and concern.His intellect is strong, his knowledge expansive, and his character valiant and sincere. Any attempt you make to impugn his credibility is for naught.

James Bailey
James Bailey

Given the articles that have appeared in the New Times relating to water law, why would you call the activities of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District "a Snooze," Doesn't that board also have some decision making control over future nuclear power plant(s)?

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

Sarah, once again, great investigative work to inform the public about who the "players" are and the importance of this position. Boy George won't get my vote.Will send this article around so others be better informed before they vote. the cheap shot comment above, confirms you hit the nail on the head with this valuable information in an informative article.

Dishes It But Can't Take It
Dishes It But Can't Take It

So a certain right-leaning columnist can heap scorn on her targets but what happens when someone takes a shot at her? The comment gets disappeared from the New Times site. Guess that's one of the perks of bedding the boss.

Howard M.
Howard M.

Are Arizona Democrats so greedy for campaign money that they would tolerate a douche-bag like Vagenas?

Matt S.
Matt S.

As the former deputy director of Clean Elections, I find it completely disturbing that someone would, apparently, overtly attempt to game the system.

 
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