Arizona's Top 10 Disgraced Politicians

Arizona's Top 10 Disgraced Politicians
Photoillustration: Gage Skidmore (Capitol) / Christopher (jail) via Flickr

Abuse of power. Embezzlement. Misuse of funds. Inappropriate sexual encounters.  

Another day, another political scandal in Arizona. 

Most recently, Arizona Democratic lawmaker Cecilia "Ceci" Velasquez, 42, was indicted for allegedly defrauding the federal government out of $1,726 worth of food stamps. 

If convicted of a felony, Velasquez, who was elected in 2014 to represent Legislative District 29, will be forced out of office, joining a long list of besmirched Arizona politicians.

According to at least one survey of reporters, Arizona is home to the most political corruption in America.

Even beyond AzScam and the Alt-Fuels fiasco, Arizona lawmakers have long been embroiled in high-profile scandals.

It seemed to us at New Times that it was high time for a roundup. So we rustled one up! Presented in the form of a chronological countdown, we offer Arizona's Top 10 Disgraced Politicians.

10. Governor Evan Mecham, 1988
When Ev Mecham was impeached and removed from office in 1988, he was the first U.S. governor in 59 years to be subjected to such ignominy. A far-right-wing Republican, Mecham was a millionaire car dealer with a serious jones for elected office. He notched four consecutive failed attempts at Arizona's highest office before being elected governor in November 1986 in a fractured, three-way race. Upon taking office, one of his first acts was a doozy: rescinding the state's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, a move that inflamed racial tensions and prompted public protests. (He also defended the use of the term "pickaninny" as a historical term of affection.) Within six months, a recall drive was under way to give him the boot. In January 1988, a grand jury indicted him and his brother on charges stemming from an investigation into campaign-finance violations and fraud. (In an attempt to halt the investigation, Mecham allegedly threatened the life of a former lobbyist, resulting in additional charges of obstruction of justice.) That was enough for the Arizona Legislature to make the recall effort moot by impeaching Mecham. The brothers Mecham were subsequently acquitted of the felony charges against them, but Ev Mecham would never again win an election. (Not that he didn't try.) In 2008, Mecham died at a Phoenix hospice at the age of 83, having succumbed to Alzheimer's disease.

9. Governor J. Fife Symington III, 1997
Ev Mecham isn't the only Arizona governor to have been ousted from office. In 1997, J. Fife Symington III saw his political career crumble when he was forced to resign two years after a federal jury convicted him on bank- and wire-fraud charges. A wealthy Republican real-estate developer, Symington had won office in 1991. During his first term, he was investigated and cleared of any involvement with the failed Southwest Savings & Loan scandal, and he went on to win re-election in 1994. But on September 4, 1997, he was indicted on 21 federal counts ranging from fraud to extortion to perjury. The subsequent conviction was overturned on appeal in 1999, and then-President Bill Clinton pardoned him before leaving office in 2001. After his political issues were resolved, Symington left politics, went to culinary school, and became a pastry chef. But he re-emerged into the public spotlight in 2007, when he revealed that he'd personally witnessed the 1997 mass UFO sighting known as the Phoenix Lights.

8. U.S. Congressman Rick Renzi, 2008
From 2003 to 2008, Rick Renzi served Arizona's First Congressional District and held a coveted seat on the House Intelligence Committee. But on April 19, 2007, following a tip, the FBI raided his family business, an insurance agency, leading to an indictment on 35 counts alleging extortion, racketeering, and other federal charges. Renzi was accused of embezzling insurance premiums to fund his political campaigns and using his power as a lawmaker to force changes in a proposed federal land swap to benefit a business associate. In 2008, with the charges hanging over him, Renzi did not seek re-election. Instead, while awaiting trial, he hunkered down in Flagstaff, working as a real-estate developer, vineyard owner, insurance broker, and lawyer. In June 2013, Renzi was convicted of 17 counts and sentenced to three years in prison. Despite allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, a federal appeals court upheld his conviction and sentencing and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Renzi hasn't given up, though, and has reportedly put together a legal team to mount a new appeal.

7. Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, 2010
During his term in office from 2004 to 2010, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas was known for his anti-illegal-immigration policies and tough-on-crime politics, including strengthening sanctions for drug abusers. In his first two years in office, Thomas nearly doubled the number of times his office sought the death penalty, even as the number of first-degree murder cases remained more or less the same. In fact, in 2007, Thomas sought the death penalty in almost half of first-degree murder cases, contributing to a massive backlog of capital cases that crippled the county's public-defender system. Thomas was also tight with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and the two allegedly conspired to launch political probes into elected officials and judges in retaliation for perceived disloyalty. In February 2010, a judge determined that Thomas had gone after Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox for political reasons, and the State Bar of Arizona soon opened an investigation into Thomas and two of his deputies. After Thomas lost his bid for state attorney general that same year, he was disbarred for ethical misconduct and criminal actions.

6. Nogales Mayor Octavio Garcia Von Borstel, 2010
On September 28, 2010, Nogales Mayor Octavio Garcia Von Borstel was arrested on charges of bribery, theft, fraud, and money laundering. An investigation by the Arizona Attorney General's Office and the FBI had revealed that Garcia Von Borstel had been soliciting businesses in Nogales to hire him as a consultant and, in return, using his position as mayor to grant them government contracts. Additionally, he and his father had managed to rip off more than a half-million dollars from Western Union by printing out money orders and cashing them. In March 2014, with a year remaining on his three-and-a-half-year sentence, Garcia Von Borstel was released from prison. "He served his time, he's a good man, he should be welcomed back into the arms of the community," his attorney reportedly said at the time.

5. State Senator Scott Bundgaard, 2011
As 2010 came to a close, Peoria's Scott Bundgaard was a rising Republican star in state politics, having served in both houses of the Arizona Legislature. But in late February 2011, only two months after he was elected majority leader of the Senate, police responded to a call of an altercation between a man and a woman on the Piestewa Freeway. When they arrived, they found Bundgaard with a black eye, a fat lip, and scrapes on his arms. He told the officers that his girlfriend, Aubry Ballard, had assaulted him from the passenger's seat while he was at the wheel of his gold Mercedes, en route home from a charity event, and that he'd sustained the injuries during an altercation that ensued when he pulled over to retrieve his clothes, which Ballard had heaved from the car. Ballard, meanwhile, alleged she was the victim, and that Bundgaard had yanked her from the car and shaken her. The officers took both occupants of the Mercedes  into custody, only to free the senator when he invoked the rarely used "legislative immunity." A few weeks later, after the senate launched an ethics probe into the incident, Bundgaard's Republican colleagues stripped him of his post as majority leader. In January 2012, he resigned from the Legislature, making the ethics investigation moot. He then filed a lawsuit against Ballard and the City of Phoenix, which subsequently was settled.

4. State Representative Richard Miranda, 2012
Republican politicians don't have a monopoly on scandals. Richard Miranda served in the Arizona House of Representatives from 1999 until 2002, then moved to the state senate, where he rose to the rank of minority whip in 2005. So much for the highlights. In 2012, the District 13 Democrat was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison and ordered to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars after pleading guilty to felony wire fraud and tax evasion. While executive director of the nonprofit Centro Adelante Campesino, Inc., he'd illegally sold a building the foundation ran and pocketed the proceeds. Prosecutors said he'd also embezzled more than $18,000 from another nonprofit, the Arizona Latino Caucus Foundation, for which he served as president. Adding insult to injury, he didn't claim any of the ill-gotten gains on his tax returns.

3. State Representative Ben Arredondo, 2012
Another Democrat! State Representative Ben Arredondo spent 18 months under house arrest. At an age when many people would gracefully gliding into retirement, Arredondo was facing a prison sentence for bribery and fraud. In 2010, the former Tempe councilman had been elected to the House of Representatives. But over the course of a federal sting operation that had begun while Arredondo was still serving the people of Tempe, the councilman allegedly accepted about $6,000 in tickets to charity and sporting events return for providing information to undercover FBI agents who posing as developers seeking an inside track on a Tempe land deal. Arredondo was indicted on charges of bribery, mail fraud, lying, and extortion stemming from an FBI sting. As part of a plea agreement, Arredondo copped to two felonies. Though the offenses could have landed him in prison for more than two years, a federal judge went the lenient route: house arrest followed by three years' probation.

2. State Representative Daniel Patterson, 2012
Fans of political scandals in the Grand Canyon State hit the trifecta in 2012. On April 11 of that year, minutes before the Arizona House of Representatives was scheduled to vote on whether to remove him from office, Daniel Patterson fell on his proverbial sword, becoming the legislature's third lawmaker that year to lose his seat in the midst of a criminal investigation. Granted, the progressive Democrat from Tucson surrendered his seat under what he termed "strong protest." But for more than a month, Patterson had been under an ethics-committee microscope stemming from allegations of domestic violence, intimidating fellow lawmakers, and (cough, cough) marijuana use. The probe began after two women (one a former girlfriend, the other his ex-wife) leveled domestic-violence allegations against him, leading to a misdemeanor indictment. But its sweep included possible anger-management issues, a lobbyist who claimed Patterson had offered to trade a legislative vote for sex, and purported assertions that he'd professed a fondness for pot. In August of 2012, Patterson was acquitted on the four misdemeanor counts of domestic violence that had started the whole thing.

1. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (ongoing)
We gave you this list in chronological order. But it's only fitting that it ends with Arizona's most scandalous lawmaker, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Although at age 84, Arpaio is slowing down physically, his presence under the spotlight of scandal is only growing more prominent. During his 23-year tenure as sheriff, he has been involved in more than two dozen controversies involving everything from crappy jail conditions to abuse of power, improper clearance of cases, failure to investigate rape cases, feuds with judges, misuse of funds, racial profiling, and even staging a failed assassination attempt. He has repaid some of those who have dared to cross him by launching bogus investigations against him; that list includes former Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon, ex-Attorney General Terry Goddard, erstwhile New Times owners Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin, and current reporter Ray Stern. Most recently, the sheriff lost a landmark civil-rights lawsuit, Melendres v. Arpaio — a case that has left the presiding federal judge mulling over whether to up the ante on a finding of civil contempt of court to a criminal probe. Stay tuned


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