Political Blows Still Flying In District 4 as Justin Johnson, Laura Pastor Enter Final Leg of Race
Laura Pastor, Justin Johnson
Johnson, the son of former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, faces criticism over family properties that are vacant eye sores, for being vague about his family's numerous Valley corporations, and for casting favorable votes on development projects represented by the same individuals hosting a campaign fundraiser for him.
And, probably the most damning criticism stems from his own words during a candidate forum -- at which he admitted to donating money to every council member to grease the wheels, or as he put it, "make things smoother," for his development projects.
It's not a good look for Johnson, a member of the city's Planning Commission.
Johnson is hoping to beat out Pastor, who is the daughter of Congressman Ed Pastor. And she's had her fair share of criticism in this election, and previous ones, because of it.
During the August election, someone sent out a this flier:
But, the same could be said of Justin Johnson, a 32-year-old businessman who has only worked in his father's shadow.
And the likes of Wayne Howard and Paul Gilbert aren't likely tossing their support behind Johnson because of all that he's accomplished. It's all about close relationships they have with his father, and the political connections they bring -- and the new ones they can create.
Justin Johnson started a construction company -- Old World Communities -- that did construction work for his father's homebuilding company. According to Arizona Corporation Commission records, Old World Communities is managed by two other corporations controlled by the elder Johnson. According to state records, Justin is a member.
Two other companies that Justin Johnson lists on his Financial Disclosure Statement -- Predecessor Development and NSPAZ, both construction related -- aren't doing business anymore, he tells New Times. While Justin Johnson was in sole control of Predecessor Development, several of his father's companies had controlling interests in NSPAZ.
Johnson says that he listed those defunct companies on his financial disclosure form in an effort to be overly transparent.
A vacant West Valley property tied to Phoenix Council Candidate Justin Johnson.
He says his company is doing great things in the community. In a February press release announcing his candidacy for the City Council, Johnson describes Old World Communities as one that "has focused on revitalization projects throughout" Phoenix.
Then, Camp Pastor busts out with this photo of a Johnson family-controlled property near 27th and Georgia avenues.
The criticism doesn't end there.
Consider the invite below to a $250-per-person fundraiser for Johnson's campaign shows the May 30 event was hosted by a Who's Who of Valley developers, consultants and zoning attorneys, including Edwin "Ed" Bull, Paul Gilbert, Nick Wood and Wayne Howard.
During a May 14 Planning Commission meeting -- about two weeks before that scheduled fundraiser -- Johnson voted favorably on a couple of development projects represented by Gilbert, an influential zoning attorney. (Minutes, Pages 6-28)
Phoenix's staff asked the Planning Commission to reject one of the projects -- a single-family development near North Valley Parkway and Sonoran Desert Drive -- because of its proximity to a waste transfer station that will eventually process a million tons of garbage a year.
Johnson made a motion for the project to be approved, but it failed after a majority of the commissioners shot it down.
Again, during a June 11 Planning Commission meeting, Johnson voted in favor of changes favorable to a development project on the northwest corner of 32nd Street and Canal Avenue represented by Bull. (Minutes, Pages 16-29)
Johnson isn't apologetic for voting on those projects.
"Those are the types of tough decisions we have to make on the City Council," he says. "And I evaluate the projects on their merits."
He deflects and jumps into the way-back machine to criticize Pastor for her adamant support at the time of payday loans in 2007. At that time, Mario Diaz was reportedly working as a paid consultant for the payday industry and a paid fundraiser for Pastor's then-council campaign.
New Times' published the following in a 2007 column:
Laura Pastor's sole experience as a public official is her two-year tenure on the Encanto Village Planning Commission. In that capacity, she was asked to vote on code changes, being pushed by the city of Phoenix's planning department, to keep payday lenders from overwhelming residential neighborhoods.
Every planning commission in the city supported the code changes, and so, eventually, did the City Council.
But not Laura Pastor. She voted no -- and, in two different meetings, she made a point of defending the usurious payday lenders from municipal intervention.
You know who else was at one of the planning commission meetings where Pastor piped up? Mario Diaz. Records show he was being paid to lobby for the local association of payday lenders.
Pastor obviously had a change of heart.
Her campaign responds those political charges with testimony from State Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, a lawmaker who fought to abolish the industry in 2008.
"Laura Pastor supported our ballot initiative to end pay-day lending," McCune Davis said in her statement. "Thanks to her and thousands of other Arizonans we were able to end this exploitation of the working poor here in Phoenix."
Pastor's campaign also points out that Johnson's disparagement is ironic because his campaign is being run by HighGround Inc., a high-profile lobbying firm that was the public relations arm of the payday loan industry when it tried to re-enter the market in 2009.
He says his votes won't be swayed by such connections, or financial contributions from political supporters. If they are going to have an impact on his opponent's votes, "then she shouldn't run, because to me, [contributions] don't have an impact."
Johnson's voting in May and June on projects that are making money for the same people helping to stuff his campaign coffers is aggravated by comments he made during that September 12 debate.
The moderator asked Johnson which council and mayoral candidates he has financially supported.
Johnson just laid out his pay-to-play-better philosophy for everyone to hear:
"I would say, every single council member that's actually on the City Council today. I'm in the construction business, I'm a general contractor, and we often submit plans down to the City; and it's nice to have people to call down there, and ask for help on what the process is, how we can make it smoother, how we can make it better."
He tells New Times that the comment was taken out of context. He says that in the second half of his comment he talked about how he "believed in the City of Phoenix" and that it was important to work hard and support it.
Watch the video and judge for yourself.
We asked why he would make such a connection between his financial contributions to elected officials and getting something in return for his construction business.
"I stand by my reasons," he says. "I donated because I believe in the City of Phoenix."
Johnson points out that developers have also donated money to Pastor's campaign.
"They're just people," he says of developers, and argues that his background and experience in the industry will give him an edge over Pastor since he will be able to recognize the difference between responsible development and irresponsible development.
It's unclear exactly which development pots and projects Johnson has his fingers in because, as we noted earlier, while he lists various limited liability corporations in his financial disclosure statement, those connections aren't reflected on official records filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission.
For instance, Johnson describes himself as a member of Casa de Montanas in his financial disclosure statement, but there is no record of him being a member, according to state documents.
His name also doesn't appear on records for the LLCs Old World Homes II or Arizona Pathways and Partnerships (APP).
Again, he says he listed those corporations because of ties they have with his father, and he wanted to err on the side of over disclosure.
If that were the case, it's worth noting he omitted several from that report, including Old World Homes Berkana Development, Old World Homes Berkana Development II, Old World Homes Berkana Holdings, Old World Homes II, APPB Management.
Johnson's voluminous family interests are a convoluted tangle of limited liability corporations with partnerships that, according to state records, involve the Barron Collier Company, which developed the Collier Center in downtown Phoenix, and Wayne Howard, a well-connected investor/developer and political money-man.
Howard is a member of a limited liability corporation named Osterra, which is managed by PJJR Consulting -- one of Paul Johnson Jr.'s many corporations.
Justin Johnson's dad is also listed as a member on another Wayne Howard corporation, Hojo, LLC.
There is one more connection between the Johnsons and Howard -- and it lies in one of the worst kept secrets around town:
Howard's "breakfast club" meetings -- a monthly gathering of a cadre of developers and the politically connected.
As described in a 2010 New Times story, Howard's "breakfast club" meetings are often the source of huge campaign dollars for political candidates.
One Phoenix insider likened Justin Johnson's selection process among the mighty members of the breakfast club to the way that Pastor Warren Stewart received his stamp of approval to run in the District 8 race by a small clique of power brokers in the African American and Latino communities.
A far cry from a church basement, where Stewart supporters gathered to pledge support for his candidacy, Johnson's circle of political friends like Howard, Rick Cole, Billy Shields, Mike Leib and Dean Howard don't rely on the subtle security that an off the beaten-path basement provides.
Rather, they opt for the more obvious security provided by the prestigious members-only Arizona Country Club in the heart of Arcadia.
Much like Stewart was the choice of south Phoenix politicos, Johnson emerged as the candidate of choice for the north Phoenix development lobby.
Johnson says he attends Howard's breakfast club meetings, but adds that he will attend "any and every meeting" to which he's invited.
At Howard's breakfast club, members can raise large sums of campaign contributions for elected officials favored in the world of developers.
New Times hasn't been invited to a meeting, but those who have been graced with entry into the club tell us it goes something like this:
Several times a year a sitting elected official will attend to make a stump speech, usually on the importance the development community provides to the region. On their way out the door they pick up a handful of campaign checks for the maximum contribution allowed by law. One could easily walk out with $25,000 in political contributions.
In return, perhaps it's like Johnson explained during the candidates forum:
"It's nice to have people to call down there, to ask for help on what the process is, how we can make it smoother."
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