MORE

REINVENTING THE BIG WHEEL

It's said that Sam Coppersmith surprised even himself the night he snatched Arizona's First Congressional District from an incumbent Republican who seemed much better suited to the conservative East Valley district. It was called the upset of 1992, a race so close that Coppersmith, a pro-choice Democrat making his first bid for office, didn't officially claim victory until the next day.

Early on that day, as the most ardent Clinton revelers headed for their cars, a lanky, brown-haired man stepped outside election headquarters at Phoenix Civic Plaza and into the cool night air. He slouched with fatigue, eyes watery behind rimless glasses, and headed slowly across the concrete plaza. Like any political consultant after a grueling election, Mike Crusa was exhausted. But his spirits soared. He intended to stick around. His guy, Coppersmith, had won.

So had a bevy of other Crusa clients, including U.S. Representative Ed Pastor, state Senator Chuck Blanchard, state representatives Chris Cummiskey and Phil Hubbard, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and Cochise County Sheriff John Pintek.

Although he hadn't dared tell Coppersmith for fear the campaign would lose momentum, Crusa had predicted a Coppersmith win nine days before the election. He had anticipated voter turnout in District 1 almost to the percentage point and tallied probable results based on telephone interviews with voters in the district. As president of his own political consulting firm, The Summit Group, Crusa makes it his business to know such things. Candidates like Coppersmith trust Crusa to get campaign signs up, conduct polls and run telephone banks, coordinate mailings and do the little things that no one wants to do--little things that separate the winners from the losers. Crusa helps elect people--almost exclusively Democrats--to school boards, city councils, Congress, selling his abilities based on nearly two decades of grassroots campaigning in Arizona.

They hire Crusa because of his track record.
And in spite of it.
Less than two years before that triumphant election night of 1992, Crusa was perilously close to becoming a political pariah.

Sitting in a hearing room at the Arizona State Capitol on March 12, 1991, with his attorney, Stephen Dichter, Crusa told the House Select Committee on Ethics investigating AzScam that then-state representative Sue Laybe had handed him $10,000. He testified that Laybe, whom he characterized as a casual acquaintance, hadn't divulged the origins of the cash, but had asked him to get it into state Democratic party coffers. He said he'd tried repeatedly to get her to return the money to its source, warning her that it might be tainted, but that she wouldn't listen. He said he'd put the money in a safe-deposit box, had even spent some of it, but had brought $10,000 to the authorities when news of AzScam broke. In exchange, the county attorney had granted him immunity in the bribery sting. Crusa also told the committee that he had resigned his position as Senator Dennis DeConcini's state director.

Sue Laybe keeps a transcript of Crusa's testimony before the ethics committee. She's marked passages with an orange highlighter, editorializing with ballpoint pen in the margins: Lie. Lie. Lie. Big, fat lie. Biggest, fattest lie of all.

Laybe says Crusa was her most trusted political adviser, not just a casual acquaintance. She says he never told her to give the $10,000 back, that he told her he put it into a Democratic party account. She says she had counted on him to defend her, to explain that she only wanted to help the Democratic party and that he had told her that what she did was legal.

Immediately following Crusa's testimony, Laybe--the sole AzScam-indicted representative to insist she had done nothing wrong--suddenly reversed her position and quit the legislature.

Laybe went to jail. She served three months as part of a plea bargain after admitting she had accepted more than $24,000 in bribes. The $14,000 that didn't go to Crusa Laybe spent on herself, her campaign and other Democrats' campaigns.

Crusa dropped out of sight for months. The talk around town was that his political career was over; a rumor circulated that he was delivering telephone books.

Then news began to spread of a new consulting firm that was filling the vacuum left by local Democratic consultant Rick DeGraw, who had lost his own business in the wake of his involvement with AzScam. (DeGraw was indicted on nine felony counts and recently pleaded to a much-reduced charge.)

The new player wasn't really new. It was Mike Crusa, whose reemergence in the wake of AzScam has exposed a remarkable Teflon exterior. Phoenix Gazette columnist Dennis Wagner wrote that prosecutors handed Crusa "a get-out-of-jail-free card."

Crusa now counts among his clients the Arizona Democratic party, Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson and councilmembers John Nelson and Salomon Leija, Tempe Councilmember Don Cassano, Scottsdale Councilmember Richard Thomas and Mesa Mayor Willie Wong.

 

That Crusa has regained so much influence so quickly is testament to his effectiveness as a campaigner. But it troubles some party faithful. One longtime Democrat says she tries to steer party members away from Crusa, but they remind her that he was never charged with a crime.

"Prove that he did anything wrong," they say.
Judson Roberts, one of the prosecutors in the AzScam case, contends that investigators ignored an opportunity to do just that. He remembers urging his colleagues to check Crusa's safe-deposit records, make sure he was telling the truth about what he had done with the money. They refused, choosing to focus more on state legislators.

"It was a stupid deal," Roberts says, contending that investigators and other prosecutors "were in too big a hurry" and failed to scrutinize Crusa's role.

@rule:
@body:Win or lose, Mike Crusa boxes up his clients' leftover campaign literature and mails it to them after election day. Frame it and stick it up on the wall, he tells them. Be proud.

"You only have one thing to sell in this business, and that's your word. Your word ain't good, then to hell with it," he says.

And how do his clients know they can trust Crusa? Crusa leans across the desk and steadies his gaze. He swallows--as if to force the anger back down his throat--and speaks slowly. "They know it."

Why?
"Because they have experienced it."
In the world of politics--where anything from a candidate's tax records to her baby sitter's immigration status is fair game--it's astonishing that only one of Crusa's clients has had to answer for his consultant's AzScam link. GOP House nominee Roger Rudman plastered District 25 with "AzScam Kingpin" signs and literature last fall in an attempt to discredit his Democratic foe, Chuck Blanchard. But even some of Crusa's enemies admit that Rudman's attacks were overblown. If anything, according to Blanchard, Crusa proved his worth by launching a counterattack and saving the seat.

"I guess he [Crusa] felt vindicated by the election results. It was a 2 to 1 victory," Blanchard says. Blanchard admits he worried that the charges could cost him his seat, but adds, "I was more concerned about whether this guy who was devoting hours and hours to my campaign was going to find his livelihood ruined." Many of Crusa's clients and acquaintances share Blanchard's devotion to their consultant and friend.

Countervailing sentiments run just as deep, although few admit it publicly--perhaps because of Crusa's alliance with political heavyweights such as Mayor Johnson and newly elected Arizona Democratic party chair Steve Owens. And, of course, his burgeoning list of winning clients.

"Nobody that has any political ambition in Arizona would feel comfortable crossing him," says one Democrat who requested anonymity.

At first glance, it's difficult to imagine that Crusa could inspire such passion. He's soft-spoken, generally saving his temper for outbursts on the golf course. He dresses in Oxford shirts so stiff they crackle, dark blue jeans and cowboy boots. He likes Hank Williams, John Grisham and Dairy Queen.

He's on his fourth marriage and has a 23-year-old son living in Tucson. He guards his private life, preferring to blend into the background. His one distinguishing characteristic is a jolting hack--probably the result of too many cigarettes and the asthma that brought his family to Arizona from Missouri in the mid-'50s, when Crusa was in elementary school.

He was born a Southern Baptist, a Democrat and one-eighth Cherokee Indian. There was no defining moment in Mike Crusa's childhood that branded him a future political junkie. He longed to be a computer programmer.

His father set type for the Casa Grande Dispatch and later managed a Tucson printing company, but he retained his union membership even after years in management. He told his son that one day he would be grateful for the opportunity to learn to speak in front of others, and he encouraged him to study debate at Tucson's Rincon High. "As I get older, my father gets smarter," Crusa is fond of saying. He recalls that the Democratic party was touted at home as the party of small business, and that his parents encouraged Mike and his two brothers to treat others equally.

Crusa studied political science at the University of Arizona, paying his way by working at several jobs--and shooting pool.

He agreed to work on a political campaign when his insurance agent, Howard Shiff, asked for help on his Tucson City Council campaign. Shiff lost, but Crusa was hooked. He quit school and went to work as an aide for a Tucson councilmember, Dick Kennedy. Kennedy was defeated three years later, so Crusa headed back to UofA with law school and more politics in mind.

 

Not for long. Crusa ran into another young politico, Ron Ober, at the bank one day. Ober convinced him to go to work for Dennis DeConcini, the Pima County attorney who was running for the U.S. Senate.

Crusa moved to the Valley in 1976, first working for DeConcini's successful campaign, then as a staff member for the senator. (He finally got his degree from UofA on May 15, 1982, he says with pride.) He left DeConcini in 1982 for Arizona Public Service Company, where he helped implement the first emergency exercise for the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station and continued to work on campaigns. Then it was back to full-time politics--first with Rick DeGraw, who had his own firm at the time, then with First Tuesday, a consulting firm run at the time by Ben Goddard.

His taste for politics and booze developed simultaneously. It wasn't until the late 80s that he checked himself into a three-week substance-abuse rehab program. He says he hasn't had a drink in nearly six years and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Crusa may have one addiction under control, but he clings to others: cigarettes, caffeine and the rush of a political campaign.

Neophyte campaigners are often shocked by the exhaustion and depression that come after an election, regardless of the outcome. It's like running into a brick wall, the veterans say, or coming down from a drug-induced high. Crusa claims that years of campaigning have rendered him impervious to this phenomenon, but some wonder if he just avoids it by transferring his addiction to another candidate or issue.

Some eyebrows were raised when, shortly after Crusa's alcohol rehabilitation, DeConcini hired him as the deputy manager of his 1988 Senate campaign. Crusa proved himself worthy of his former boss's loyalty. After the election, the senator gave him the plum position of state director.

Crusa was busy with his new responsibilities, but made time for more campaigning. He took a special interest in the Democrats' desire to capture the state Senate in 1990, becoming "de facto campaign manager" of Impact 90, a powerhouse fund-raising committee. Impact 90 pulled it off--the Democrats captured a majority in the state Senate that fall, and Crusa barely caught his breath before it was time to rally for the gubernatorial runoff between Fife Symington and Terry Goddard.

He need not have bothered. February brought AzScam revelations. Crusa's world crumbled.

Crusa "took three months off to contemplate my navel." He worked in his yard, painted his northwest Phoenix home and tried to improve his putting. When pressed, he admits that he did in fact work for Dial-A-Messenger, but just to get out of the house and get some fresh air.

Six months after he testified before the ethics committee, Crusa had landed what he considers The Summit Group's first big client, Scottsdale City Council candidate Richard Thomas.

Thomas won, and with every victory, Crusa leaves AzScam and Sue Laybe farther behind.

@rule:
@body:Her hair has grown in the two years since Sue Laybe's picture was plastered on the front pages, announcing her resignation from the legislature and her admission that she'd accepted bribes. A few strands of gray glint in the sunlight as she bends to sip her coffee; the oversize, signature eyeglasses are the same.

Sue Laybe spends her days counting money and her nights dealing blackjack. Her daytime employer has requested that she protect its identity. She laughs because the state now has jeopardized her nighttime job--for Ace Casinos, a charity gambling outfit--with recent legislation designed to limit Indian gaming.

No, the irony of her situation is not lost on Laybe. She always did support gambling, she reminds a reporter.

She's willing to dredge up the past--those hectic months during the 1990 election, when she met a wealthy contributor named Tony Vincent who would give her more than $24,000--because, she says, there are still questions surrounding what happened to the money that Vincent gave her. Specifically, the $10,000 that she took from Vincent and gave to Crusa.

Laybe says it never occurred to her to quit the legislature after the AzScam indictments were announced. She didn't believe she'd done anything wrong. Her most trusted adviser had told her so.

Laybe's and Crusa's stories vary enormously--from the nature of their relationship to their recollection of events during the 1990 campaign.

In his testimony before the ethics committee, Crusa recalled specific times--dating to the day in August 1990 when Laybe gave him the money--when he told Laybe to take the $10,000 and give it back to her secret source. Laybe, however, claims Crusa made it clear that he had found a way to get the money to the national party, and back to the state, and that he never told her to return the $10,000.

 

Laybe says there's an inconsistency in Crusa's claim that he urged her to return the money. Why would he tell the committee he had done that if he had also spent some of the money?

Crusa claims he had access to the cash all along. "I acknowledged having spent some of the specific money. I did not say that the money was not available," he now says. He says he can't recall how much he spent, or what he spent it on. The committee did not pursue the matter. "He wasn't on trial. She was," Representative Lisa Graham, a member of the committee, says. Crusa doesn't recall a conversation Laybe says they had in late 1990, in which she asked where the $10,000 had ended up. According to Laybe, Crusa pointed to the name of a contributor on a state party financial-disclosure form and told her never to mention the money again. She can't recall the contributor's name.

Laybe recalls another conversation, this time in January 1991. The rumor mill was churning out tales of Tony Vincent (Joseph Stedino's alias) and his pro-gambling money, and reporters were starting to call Laybe. She immediately contacted Crusa. They met and he coached her, telling her to stand by her pro-gambling position, to "say what wonderful things gambling would do for the state of Arizona. People go see Hoover Dam and they go up to Las Vegas instead of coming down to Phoenix. [He told me] how to put the spin on it. He always told me if you're going to get your story out, get it out first and get your angle on it first."

In politics they call it spinning a story. Damage control. In the real world, they call it covering your ass. In any case, Crusa would take his own advice just weeks later, after news of AzScam broke--telling his side of the story first, cutting a deal with the county attorney, handing $10,000 over to the County Attorney's Office and testifying before the ethics committee.

Some parts of his testimony involved what Crusa says he told Laybe to do with the $10,000. Much of the testimony dealt with their relationship, which Crusa portrayed as respectful but casual.

"There are times I know I didn't see or talk to Sue for three, four, five months at a time, six months at a time," Crusa told the committee. That's a lie, Laybe says. "I would not make a political move without asking Mike Crusa first." But because many of her alleged conversations with Crusa took place in parking lots, in the car or on the telephone, she doesn't have any way to back up many of her claims. Those who were around Laybe during the 1990 campaign admit that they don't have details, but they do recall that she was in almost constant contact with Crusa.

Charlie Harrison was incredulous when he heard Crusa's testimony. The local Democratic activist and Laybe confidant sat in front of his television in disbelief, first watching news of the charges against Laybe and later listening to Crusa's side of the story.

Throughout the 1990 campaign, Harrison says, "I would ask [Sue] about the most dip-shit little nothing thing and she'd have to check it with Crusa." (Harrison was indicted in 1991 on two counts of perjury resulting from grand jury testimony. He pleaded no contest earlier this month to a class 2 misdemeanor charge, and was fined $240.) Jeff Browne, who worked as a consultant to Laybe in 1990, echoes Harrison's observation. He recalls that Laybe had an "almost chemical need" to be in touch with Crusa on every matter. Browne, Laybe and Crusa all confirm that the three traveled to Las Vegas together on election night in 1990, to celebrate their victory. (Browne's other clients that year included attorney general candidate Georgia Staton and state education superintendent C. Diane Bishop. The Virginia-based consultant says he's been blackballed from Arizona politics because of his affiliation with Laybe. He was not charged with any wrongdoing in AzScam and says he didn't know that Laybe had taken tens of thousands of dollars from Vincent until the story broke.) Crusa stands by his testimony. Maybe Laybe had a different interpretation of their relationship, he concedes, but as far as he's concerned, he never treated her any differently than other legislative candidates.

"We would run into each other at regular Democratic-type events. Okay? That's basically what it was," he says.

Laybe says that's inaccurate: "I had his car phone number, his direct office line . . . his home number, pager number." They had a secret code--6666--so that he would know immediately that she had paged him, she says.

 

"I'm not going to say that's not possible," Crusa responds. "I don't know about a secret code on the thing. There was a whole lot of people that I gave a number to to use the pager to let me know who it was."
Laybe wanted to physically attack Crusa the day he testified before the ethics committee. She's tempered her feelings since. "I should have gone and asked a lawyer about the $10,000, whether or not it was legal," she says.

She's even tried to contact Crusa, handing him her card at Nucleus Club meetings and suggesting they meet for coffee. She calls him at home. "I wrote him a letter saying I was sorry and forgiving him for what he did and I want to make sure he's okay," Laybe says. He ignores her. @rule:

@body:Crusa is happy to share his philosophy of grassroots organizing. Some call it the product of inherent talent, a sixth sense. Others say it's lifted straight from political-science textbooks.

First, you gotta know how to pick em. "I want it clear--you can't sell a pig in a poke," he says. "I try to stay away from those who I don't think are electable."

Crusa asks prospective candidates why they're running and why he should vote for them. If they can't answer those questions, there's no hope. "I'm not the candidate," he says. He'll help shape a message, but the basic ideas have to come from the candidate.

The Summit Group offers custom campaign services. It will run telephone banks or organize the entire campaign with campaign staffers that Crusa recruits and trains. No job too big, no job too small.

Save one. Crusa assiduously avoids fund-raising, leaving the campaign finance reports to accountants and lawyers. He distributes copies of election law to his clients the way a dentist hands out toothbrushes. As for campaigning, Crusa's philosophy is simple: The more contact the voter has with the candidate, the better. Face to face is best, but by telephone is okay, too. It's not enough to contact random households; direct mail, telephone banking and neighborhood walking are precise sciences, Crusa believes, and he employs methods designed to get the maximum effect for the minimum expense.

To Crusa, even campaign signs are a fine art--whether they're the 4-by-8s stuck up along busy thoroughfares or the smaller signs that people put up in their yards. His clients marvel at his obsession with staple guns, glue and wood.

Coppersmith chuckles, "Nobody really knows if they work, but it's part of the kabuki. They're one way of convincing yourself . . . that you're running." Campaign veterans love to share tales of sign battles. Paul Johnson recalls one of Crusa's harebrained sign schemes. During Johnson's first successful campaign for city council, Mike instructed Paul's brother Rob to hang just one campaign sign upside down. Rob was to move the sign every week to maximize the shock value. This sign-erection ritual was a source of great embarrassment to Rob, who had to answer to curious passers-by. In the end, he began draping a sheet over the sign during the installation process, waiting until he had climbed back into the truck and starting the engine to pull it off and drive away.

Dean Winslow, a longtime friend of Crusa's, remembers election eve 1982, when he and Crusa stayed out all night to put up DeConcini signs. Winslow crawled onto a Pete Dunn billboard at Thomas and Central, stapling DeConcini signs along the bottom to form the word "Done." Perhaps the most vital ingredient to Crusa's success is his ability to recruit volunteers and get the most out of them. He knows that a few hours of labor outmatch the worth of a cash donation. Crusa has a special knack for communicating with volunteers, especially young people. Some believe he's sincere, others say he's Machiavellian.

Tricia Wasbotten Parker never knew what hit her. She never thought about the fact that she spent hour after hour--even on an 18-year-old's precious Saturday nights--stuffing envelopes and transcribing letters, with popcorn and a campaign tee shirt her only remuneration. Truth be told, she didn't much care for Dennis DeConcini, who was seeking reelection to the U.S. Senate in the fall of 1988. After volunteering to work a few hours a week on the DeConcini campaign as part of a college class, Wasbotten Parker had found herself assigned to Crusa, the campaign's deputy manager. "I can't explain the attraction to Mike," she says five years later. "I don't even want to use the word sexual because I don't want anything to be misconstrued that I was ever sexually attracted to Mike--but it was that kind of magnetism."

 

Crusa made her feel important by validating her worth through praise and important assignments. He made her a part of the process. Wasbotten Parker went to class in the morning and work in the afternoon; nights and weekends belonged to the campaign. She walked precincts, made telephone calls, typed letters. And, as "Mike's intern," she sometimes won the honor of riding with him to campaign events. "I was like a sponge. . . . I was soaking up everything he had to give. Personal advice, political advice, campaign strategy, his opinion of the building we were going by. Everything. I just wanted to be with him."

She remembers that he chewed aspirin and ate king-size Baby Ruth bars when he was sick. And she swears it's the best job she's ever had, even though he's stood her up for lunch a couple times since the campaign ended.

Another 88 DeConcini volunteer, who asked that her name not be used, recalls that Crusa got her to do just about anything--including canvass ultraconservative Sun City. When her husband complained that he never saw her, she told him, "Well, you know, they make me feel good at that campaign. They treat me like they want me there, they like me and they need me. And that's more than I get from you."

Maidi Terry, who worked as an intern and staff member in DeConcini's Phoenix office for almost a year while Crusa was the senator's state director, observed similar behavior. But Terry views Crusa as manipulative. If he was in a good mood, "he made us feel like we were an important part of the office," she says, describing him as "almost neurotically pleasant."

On bad days, he was "incredibly arrogant," lashing out at staff members in front of other employees for no apparent reason.

Even today, Marcia Imber says she doesn't know why Crusa fired her in 1990 from her position as office manager of DeConcini's Phoenix office. He had recruited her just months before. Imber and Crusa had a friendship dating back to DeConcini's 76 campaign. Crusa won't discuss personnel matters, but says he had his reasons.

Imber had reconsidered her opinion of Crusa even before he fired her, contending that his charm is dangerous. "I think he's a charismatic leader like David Koresh, like Fidel Castro," she says. "That's why he's a success in political management. Because he can size up a situation so quickly and know what that person wants to hear. Or what that group . . . needs at that time." @rule:

@body:In The Summit Group's central Phoenix office, the waiting area consists of a folding chair behind a door. Crusa has a secretary and an assistant, but it's pretty much a one-man show. His private office offers a first-floor view of the parking lot. Carefully preserved and framed newspaper pages line the walls: "Mr. Coppersmith Goes to Washington," "GOP's Arpaio defeats Armer in sheriff's race," "Pintek beats Judd by 2,200 votes."

Three cups of coffee and countless cigarettes into a discussion about political strategy, Crusa is sitting on the credenza behind his desk in The Summit Group's close quarters. The rows of framed newspaper pages are his exhibit and, like a teacher, he points to two 3-by-5 index cards matted and encased in glass beneath one page. This particular headline predates The Summit Group: "New boy mayor takes over."

Scribbled on those cards is the plan that put then-Phoenix councilmember Paul Johnson in the mayor's seat when Terry Goddard stepped down to run for governor in 1990. Battling the would-be mayor, councilmember Howard Adams, in a clandestine operation, Johnson won the showdown by securing the unlikely support of councilmember Skip Rimsza. Johnson and Crusa remember breakfasting with a couple of other confidants at the Lunt Avenue Marble Club the morning of the crucial council vote. They listed possible voting scenarios and plotted strategies. Crusa points to names on the cards and tells the story in painstaking detail, gloating like a football coach who recalls a particularly clever play.

It's no surprise that Mike Crusa was one of the people to whom Johnson turned for advice. The mayor remembers listening to Crusa speak on behalf of DeConcini at a political event while Johnson was still in high school. The two formally met in 1983, when Johnson made his first bid for the council--with "nine brothers and sisters, a bunch of double cousins" and $1,000. Crusa was managing Barry Starr's campaign for mayor (and later council) at the time; and while Starr and Johnson were opponents, the more experienced candidate and his adviser took pity on a political newcomer. Instead of humiliating Johnson by correcting his gaffes publicly, Crusa and Starr would pull him aside and gently point out his errors, Johnson recalls.

 

When Johnson announced his intention to run for city council again in 1985, Crusa and others politely told him he couldn't win, but offered to help. Johnson did win, and Crusa has worked on every Johnson campaign since--gratis, until 1991, when the mayor contracted with The Summit Group.

The mayor took some flak when he hired Crusa to assist with his mayoral reelection bid just a few months after Crusa's resignation from DeConcini's staff, but Johnson scoffed. "A lot of people told me that it was a mistake to keep Mike when he had his--quote, unquote--political problem, but Mike was a friend of mine. . . . I just wasn't going to abandon him when he was having problems."

Johnson's confidence in Crusa (albeit, in the end, to run an uncontested race) certainly helped The Summit Group win more clients.

But not every client. Craig Tribken, elected to the Phoenix City Council in 1991, says Crusa tried to sell him The Summit Group's services. Tribken declined. He says that he shies away from professional consultants as a rule, but admits he was also concerned about AzScam. "No question, it's a bit of a problem," he says. "More so for me than for other people. I was a new candidate. I had to prove myself to the voters."

Other newcomers, including Richard Thomas, Sam Coppersmith and Phoenix City Council candidate Salomon Leija, were not dissuaded from hiring Crusa. And even his former boss Dennis DeConcini may contract with The Summit Group during the senator's 1994 reelection campaign, according to Barry Dill, who replaced Crusa in 1991 as DeConcini's state director. "It's one of the unfortunate aspects of our business . . . that one mistake has the ability to destroy a whole lifetime of achievement. And you know, that's not very fair," Dill says.

Along with his work for individual candidates, Crusa has maintained his close affiliation with the state Democratic party. Democratic players Steve Owens, Lee Stein and Tim Delaney rank him in the top handful of political players in the state--across party lines. "He is one of many people that we draw on for direction and advice," says Melodee Jackson, the party's executive director. Crusa has conducted candidate recruitment seminars on the county level.

And according to party expenditure documents, the state Democratic party directly paid The Summit Group $33,800 for telephone bank, research and survey work in 1992. That's not the only money The Summit Group received from the state party during the last election cycle. Crusa's organization received more than $114,000 in 1992 for work contracted by a campaign committee called Citizens for Excellence in Education and Government. In fact, CEEG contracted solely with The Summit Group, listing payments to the firm as the committee's only expenditures through November 23. The Arizona Democratic party had donated more than $48,000 to the committee.

Privately, some Democrats say they disagree with the decision to trust Crusa with the party's money. The fact that The Summit Group has taken on Republican clients has only served to increase the animosity.

Crusa argues that he worked for Republicans Tom Camp and Joe Arpaio (candidates for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and sheriff, respectively) in primary campaigns only, and has not worked for a Republican in a contested general election. That's not much consolation for Democrat John Armer, who contends that Crusa's expertise helped Arpaio beat him in the general. Armer says that he knows people who have quit the Nucleus Club, the Maricopa County Democrats' fund-raising organization, because Crusa is on the club's board of directors.

Arpaio says he didn't need to consult Crusa much during the general campaign because he relied upon what he had learned from Crusa during the primary. He and Crusa did speak occasionally during the general campaign, Arpaio admits. Party loyalists were not pleased when they heard that Crusa was seen eating dinner with Arpaio and his wife on the night of the general election.

The Arpaio campaign was a personal favor, Crusa says. And, he adds, "I view law enforcement as nonpartisan." He won't guarantee that a similar situation won't arise in the future, but says it's unlikely.

@rule:
@body:In the wake of AzScam, Sue Laybe has formed an alliance with a woman who was once her fiercest opponent. Margaret Updike is a conservative Republican Mechamite who was elected to the House of Representatives in District 25 in 1988 along with Laybe. But unlike Laybe, Updike did not win reelection in 1990.

Updike blames her 1990 defeat on AzScam and the money Laybe, one of her opponents, took from Stedino. According to Laybe's own handwritten notes, she pumped at least $3,000 in AzScam bribe money directly into her own campaign and thousands of additional dollars into the Democratic party and other candidates' campaigns. Oddly enough, Updike sees Laybe as an innocent victim. "I know that Sue would not have done anything to jeopardize her office," she says. Instead, Updike holds Mike Crusa partially responsible for her 1990 defeat. She and her husband, Robert, claim Crusa could have laundered the $10,000 Laybe gave him through the Democratic party and into legislative races. Robert Updike has spent months combing campaign records, trying to find and follow that $10,000. This is not the first time Robert Updike has taken on the political establishment. In the early 1970s, while with the Phoenix City Attorney's Office, Updike was a key source in a New Times story that exposed the cover-up of a drunken driving incident involving then-U.S. senator Paul Fannin.

 

At his otherwise well-ordered central Phoenix home, Updike shuffles through cardboard boxes and piles of papers that spill over the sides of a white coffee table. At 50 cents per page, he's got a small fortune in campaign finance documents copied from originals on file with the secretary of state.

Updike sits back on the sofa, opens Joseph Stedino's book What's In It for Me?, an insider account of AzScam, and points with pride to an inscription on the title page: "To Margaret Updike! Sorry about S.L. May good fortune befall you! Joe Stedino, a.k.a. Tony Vincent! 8/6/92."

Updike taps the page. See? Even Stedino admits that AzScam money ousted Margaret Updike. And someday he will prove that Mike Crusa slipped that extra $10,000 into the party coffers. He drops the book and turns to pile after pile of documents. His voice rises as he flips pages faster and faster, moving along the paper trail. Updike's theory: that the $10,000 Laybe gave Crusa made its way to the campaign records of Project 500 (a national campaign committee) and back to Impact 90 via the state Democratic party. Judson Roberts, who left his position as a Maricopa County prosecutor earlier this year, finally listened to Updike--after Updike pestered him for weeks. Roberts analyzed the campaign records and AzScam transcripts, deciding that there was enough evidence to merit a grand jury investigation that would allow him to subpoena documents and answer Updike's questions.

"I thought it was a very plausible theory that Crusa actually laundered the money through the national party back into the state party," Roberts says.

Gary Ball, a detective with the Phoenix Police Department during AzScam who is now on contract as a special assistant to the county attorney, echoes Roberts' views. "Robert Updike, even though he rambles, is really, really into this. He has some legitimate points," Ball says.

Roberts wrote a memo to County Attorney Richard Romley, recommending an investigation. Romley's response? According to Roberts, "He said you better stop putting this stuff down on paper because people are going to start asking why we don't do something about it." Romley denies having that conversation, and says that he referred the case to the FBI because the allegations involved the national Democratic party. Ball agreed with Romley's move. Roberts didn't. "The reality is, that's his way of burying it," Roberts says.

Romley responds: "Oh, I see. The FBI isn't an appropriate agency."
The FBI returned the documents to Romley last August, six weeks after he referred the case to the bureau. A Justice Department attorney reviewed the documents and determined that there was "no evidence of federal election crime."

Spokespeople for the U.S. attorney and the Arizona attorney general say their offices have been contacted by Updike; they do not intend to investigate. Updike says he's also shared his theory with House Speaker Mark Killian, who served as chairman of the special ethics committee that heard Crusa's testimony. Killian did not return calls from New Times. Representative Lisa Graham, who also served on the committee, says she's heard about Updike's speculation and doesn't think much of it.

She says of Updike, "If it wasn't this, it would be something else."
Graham pauses, then concedes that in her mind, Updike does have a right to be angry. "Clearly, to my mind, Sue Laybe came back to the legislature because of the money they dumped into that race," she says. @rule:

@body:The Summit Group's client list continues to expand. Last week Robert Mitchell was elected mayor of Casa Grande; the week before, Ella Makula won a seat on Peoria's city council. Crusa is in the process of signing a contract with a well-known national political organization.

The ultimate challenge, of course, would be a presidential campaign. Maybe someday, Crusa says wistfully.

Meanwhile, Rick DeGraw--the onetime Democratic kingmaker whose exit from the political field via nine AzScam felony indictments opened the market for Crusa--is teaching for a community college.

 

He answers his office telephone cheerfully. No, he has no antipathy for Crusa. He considers him a friend. Although they were both political operatives, their situations were different, he says; Crusa's ordeal with the County Attorney's Office took a few days, while DeGraw's lasted almost two years. And, of course, DeGraw was actually indicted on charges that he attempted to disguise Vincent contributions to political candidates. In the end, it is likely that only a few will remember that he plea-bargained the charges down to a $1,000 fine and a misdemeanor charge the equivalent of a traffic ticket. No, DeGraw says, he's not surprised by Crusa's success of late. After all, he adds, "Candidates are squeamish, but they're not stupid." They know Crusa can help them win.

DeGraw laughs softly, under his breath. "Clinton even asked Richard Nixon for advice.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >