For months, as Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio stockpiled his campaign war chest with thousands of dollars from developers and their representatives, the big question at City Hall was whether he'd use his position on the Council to benefit his donors.
But now City Hall is abuzz with a new — and more troubling — question. Namely, is DiCiccio using his position to benefit himself?
As I first reported on New Times' Valley Fever blog last Friday, DiCiccio's real estate development company has a long-term lease on 75 acres of tribal-owned land literally across the street from his City Council district. He also has a lease to develop another 75 acres, also tribal-owned, along State Route 347.
That saddles DiCiccio with what's potentially a huge conflict between the interests of his constituents and his own business dealings.
It's not just that DiCiccio's partners on the plan are developer Gary Davidson and former billboard mogul William Levine. (That would make it awkward if DiCiccio votes on any other projects they're involved with.) And it's not just that DiCiccio has been working closely with zoning über-lawyer Paul Gilbert. (That could surely raise questions if DiCiccio weighs in on any of the roughly, oh, 10 zillion development projects that Gilbert represents at City Hall.)
Nope, it's that the single hottest issue in DiCiccio's district is the proposed Loop 202 extension. And while most of Ahwatukee abhors the idea of a freeway tearing through the neighborhood, DiCiccio's commercial development plans would clearly benefit if the extension gets built.
One of the parcels that DiCiccio hopes to develop sits right at the mouth of where the freeway currently dead-ends — meaning the land will gain value no matter what location ADOT chooses for the long-stalled project, so long as it's built.
The other parcel, on State Route 347, could also benefit if ADOT chooses to move the route farther south into the Gila River Indian Community. Perhaps not so coincidentally, DiCiccio's been openly pushing neighbors to unify behind that option.
State law bars political officials from participating "in any manner" on matters in which they have a financial interest. Yet DiCiccio has thrust himself headlong into the Loop 202 debate, arranging meetings with congressmen and attempting to unite the neighborhood behind a potential alternative to the much-loathed Pecos Road alignment. Most of the key stakeholders I spoke with say they had no inkling of DiCiccio's business interests.
That doesn't appear to be illegal. But, to me, it is a problem.
Now, DiCiccio wouldn't talk to me about any of this, or even put his chief of staff on the phone. The only explanation I got was that DiCiccio's elderly mother was ill.
But clearly the story hit a nerve with someone. The minute our story broke online, it drew the most scurrilous comments I've garnered in my 10 years as a journalist — and that's saying something. (Ever been accused of being lesbian? What about a twat? What about a lesbian twat who gives blowjobs to her sources? Yes, the combination rather defies the imagination, but it's apparently the best these guys could come up with.)
Instead of ever calling me back, DiCiccio provided an alibi to the always-receptive Arizona Republic, which noted in a blog post that the councilman had obtained legal advice from City Attorney Gary Verburg back in March. Because the freeway will affect more than 10 people, Verburg decreed, DiCiccio needn't recuse himself from participating on it.
So if DiCiccio wants to develop, say, a Wal-Mart, it's not a conflict for him to participate in council approval, because more than 10 people will shop there?
The mind reels.
Yes, the Loop 202 extension will affect all of Ahwatukee. But one person stands to benefit in a big way from it going through — while just about all the citizens he supposedly represents will suffer.
It's hard to imagine a bigger conflict of interest.
Most City Council districts have a wide array of boring-yet-important details for their council members to deal with: trash pickup, graffiti, the occasional zoning case.
Not so in the Phoenix City Council's sixth district. Here, at least in the Ahwatukee portion of the district, the Loop 202 extension blows all other potential controversies off the table.
The 202 currently circles through the East Valley, only to come to an abrupt halt in Ahwatukee, near 40th Street and Pecos. For decades, ADOT has dreamed of connecting the Loop 202 to the I-10 in west Phoenix. Its plan is to align the east-west portion of the new thoroughfare with Pecos Road.
The neighborhood opposes that vociferously, for obvious reasons. More than 250 homes would have to be destroyed. The character of quiet, pretty Ahwatukee would surely change.
So it's more than a little odd that the man now attempting to represent the neighborhood on the council has a financial interest in seeing that the freeway gets built.
And it hardly helps that DiCiccio has been so coy about his holdings. Yes, he disclosed his tribal leases on city-mandated disclosure forms, which were filed in May. And, yes, he quietly consulted City Attorney Verburg after taking office.
But in public, he's said nary a word about it.
A little background: DiCiccio originally represented Ahwatukee on the City Council for six years in the '90s, retiring in 2000 to run for Congress. He lost that race, lost one for Arizona Secretary of State, and then virtually disappeared from public life. (He held a seat on the county planning commission for a year but retired from that in 2002.)
DiCiccio's vacation from politics ended in January, when DiCiccio's replacement, Greg Stanton, announced he was leaving to take a job with the Attorney General's Office.
At that point, DiCiccio threw his hat in the ring. But at the "interview" session with the City Council in February, where he lobbied to be chosen, DiCiccio never said he was a developer with holdings in the Loop 202 area. Instead, he called himself a "businessman." Some business: Zenith Development is based out of DiCiccio's home and he appears to be its only employee.
DiCiccio repeated the same vague talk even after the council chose him to replace Stanton. In a televised interview on the city's On the Issues cable TV show, host David J. Ramirez asked DiCiccio what he'd been doing in the years since he left the council.
"I started my own business," DiCiccio replied. "I've been very successful, very happy with it." He didn't elaborate.
And while DiCiccio's supporters suggested in response to our initial blog post that DiCiccio disclosed the project at the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Commission meeting in February, the minutes don't reflect that — and at least one member in attendance told me flatly that DiCiccio did not mention his development plans. "I can say that with certainty," the member says.
DiCiccio also didn't mention it during council debates, nor did he disclose it to many of the stakeholders with whom he was working on the freeway issue. In May, DiCiccio convened the first-ever Loop 202 meeting involving ADOT, the Maricopa Association of Governments, and Democratic congressmen Harry Mitchell and Ed Pastor, who represent Tempe and Phoenix, respectively. Mitchell's spokesman, Adam Bozzi, confirms that Mitchell wasn't aware of DiCiccio's business plans for 40th and Pecos until hearing about the issue from New Times last week.
DiCiccio also failed to disclose the plans to the "kitchen cabinet" he assembled to look at locating the extension on the Gila River reservation. One member, Mike Hinz, tells me that DiCiccio did talk about his development plans in a private meeting with Hinz. But other members confirm that DiCiccio's development wasn't a subject discussed at the "cabinet" meetings. At least one member, lobbyist Jaime Molera, tells me that he was completely unaware of DiCiccio's development interest in the area.
Now, it would be one thing if DiCiccio had a lot of different development projects on his plate. But it strikes me as an interesting omission considering that the tribal-owned leases are the only record I could find of DiCiccio developing much of anything.
Indeed, the record shows that DiCiccio has been working on the tribal project for at least four years. State records show that he formed his partnership with Levine and Davidson in 2005. DiCiccio secured leases for the two 75-acre parcels in December 2007 and January 2008, according to his financial disclosure forms.
Both leases are for 65 years.
And both leases would be worth much more if the Loop 202 gets completed — no matter what route it takes.
Greg Stanton, who represented the area on the City Council from 2000 to 2008, had taken a virtual "over my dead body" approach to the freeway extension. When Stanton announced he was leaving the council earlier this year, DiCiccio must have smelled opportunity. He got himself appointed to the council and almost immediately began to work on bringing the neighborhood together.
First, there was that meeting with ADOT and the congressmen. Then, there were his curious remarks to a neighborhood group in June, telling them the freeway was coming and, in essence, they'd better get used to the idea. Then, in September, DiCiccio assembled the "kitchen cabinet" group to speak with one voice about an attractive alternative — an alternative that just happened to benefit his development plans.
Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I have to question whether DiCiccio got back on the council simply to work on the Loop 202 issue from a better perch.
The fact is, despite all the questions percolating about him at City Hall these days, DiCiccio is still the odds-on favorite to win November 3. Thanks to a huge influx of donations from developers, he's been able to outspend his rival, former social worker/AFL-CIO spokeswoman Dana Marie Kennedy by a ratio of 6 to 1.
I was initially distracted by all that cash. To date, DiCiccio has taken $265,000 in campaign contributions, more than two-thirds of it from developers and people doing business with the city. That includes $3,790 from people associated with Ellman Development (which hopes to build a condo tower at 24th Street and Camelback), $2,700 from Vestar Development (which built Desert Ridge), and $2,250 from Clean Energy (which has a fuel contract for the city's buses).
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It's one thing to imagine, though, what DiCiccio might be willing to do for a few grand in campaign contributions. It's quite another to imagine what he might be do when millions of his own dollars are at stake.
Gary Verburg tells us that DiCiccio doesn't have a conflict of interest. But I'd find that cold comfort if I were in Ahwatukee, living in the shadow of a long-stalled freeway project that my councilman has every incentive to see through.
The city attorney says one thing. Common sense, surely, says another.
I know what I'd trust more. Ahwatukee, are you listening?