Governor Jan Brewer insisted on relocating a campaign fundraiser this week to distance herself -- both figuratively and physically -- from a key figure in a 2000 state subsidy scandal.
Brewer could have anticipated problems with this one. The Wednesday fundraiser was to be held in the Paradise Valley home of Nathan Learner, an investor who worked with the late Jeff Groscost on forming the infamous alternative fuels debacle.
Learner's a businessman and vice-chairman of the private Tesseract School's board of trustees. Phoenix City Councilwoman Maria Baier proudly listed Learner as a "key endorsement" in her 2008 campaign. But he's got a mammoth skeleton in his closet.
The alt-fuels fiasco was essentially a subsidy bill gone wild. Groscost, who was state Speaker of the House in 2000 and one of the state's most powerful politicians, pushed through a bill that allowed people to buy an SUV, convert it to run on propane or natural gas, then claim a massive tax credit from the state.
Stupidly, lawmakers didn't even require subsidy takers to use the new fuel. But worst of all, as was found only after then-Governor Jane Hull signed it into law, the subsidy's fiscal impact was closer to $1 billion than the planned $10 million.
Lawmakers ultimately killed the program, holding the cost to the state to about $140 million -- and there was no benefit to the public whatsoever. If anything, the screw-up had a negative effect on the marketing of alternative fuels nationwide. And even though many consumers received the subsidies, alt fuels for passenger vehicles never took off.
Learner appeared to make a handsome profit off the subsidies, though. He owned AZ Star, one of the few companies that performed the alt-fuel conversions.
So how does Brewer know Learner? Well, she doesn't, allegedly.
But Brewer's staff knows him quite well.
Arizona Republic reporter Matthew Benson broke the fundraiser story on Friday, reporting that the governor moved the event only after he started asking questions about her relationship with Learner.
On Monday, Jeff Stapleton of the Arizona Democratic Party sent media outlets a news release to exploit the issue, claiming that Brewer's staff was in "full crisis mode" to downplay the connection with Learner. Stapleton pointed out that:
Richard Bark, Brewer's deputy chief of staff for policy, was a key aide to then-House Speaker Jeff Groscost and a central figure in the scheme. Brewer transition chief Chuck Coughlin was the lobbyist for the "Clean Air Coalition," of which Learner's company was a member. Bark's wife, Anne Hamilton, was also a lobbyist for the "Clean Air Coalition."
Coughlin was a spokesman and lobbyist for Learner, not just the coalition. And Paul Senseman, now Brewer's communication director and spokesman, was also the spokesman for Groscost during the alt-fuels era.
Groscost died of heart failure at age 45 in 2006.
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Senseman tells New Times today that Coughlin was the "friend of a friend" of Learner's to which he was referring in Benson's article.
Brewer, however, has no association with Learner "or the entire saga," Senseman says. "She wasn't a legislator at the time."
Once Benson started nosing around, Brewer figured it would be best to move the Wednesday fundraiser to the University Club in downtown Phoenix. Senseman says he didn't know whether Learner was invited.
Learner did not return a voice mail from New Times immediately -- we'll let you know if he calls back for a drive down memory lane.