Like an Arizona Cardinals fourth-quarter rally that typically stalls just short of pay dirt, the team's long pursuit of a new football stadium and the Super Bowl is in serious jeopardy.
New Times has learned that construction of the $355 million multipurpose facility, scheduled to begin in days, could be delayed with the revelation that the Glendale site is home to an undetermined number of protected desert tortoises.
In the next few days, attorneys for a national environmental consortium will seek temporary restraining orders in state and federal courts that would halt construction until it can be determined whether the team violated environmental statutes. Those attorneys say their filings will be bolstered by internal team documents that strongly suggest the Cardinals, and owner Bill Bidwill in particular, conspired to circumvent laws prohibiting the removal of desert tortoises from their natural habitat.
Those documents indicate that Bidwill knew, as early as last March, that several of the protected reptiles had been found on the Glendale location, but he personally instructed a Cardinals employee to remove them without notifying Arizona Game and Fish Department officials. The documents, copies of which were obtained by New Times, show that Bidwill also instructed his employees to keep any information about the animals from the Tourism and Sports Authority which at the time was deciding between the Glendale site and a competing Mesa location as well as from Super Bowl and Fiesta Bowl officials.
The desert tortoise is a legally protected species and can only be removed from its natural habitat under strict state guidelines. Developers who find the animals on construction sites must apply for permits before taking the reptiles to special adoption locations. Environmentalists intend to show that Bidwill was advised about these rules but chose to uproot the animals under cover of darkness rather than allow their presence to impede the protracted stadium approval process.
A prolonged legal battle over the site almost certainly would ruin the Valley's chance to land the 2008 Super Bowl, and could also throw into question the Fiesta Bowl's decision to leave its Arizona State University campus home. But its most immediate effect would be felt by the beleaguered Tourism and Sports Authority, which again may be stymied in its plans to sell bonds to pay for construction costs based on the soundness and legality of the site.
The environmental consortium is led by the respected Ogden Farrell of the Sonoran Desert Conservancy.
"These documents leave no doubt that Mr. Bidwill intended to skirt the law," Farrell says. "We also aren't sure if Bidwill and his henchmen removed all of the tortoises on the site. We're requesting a court injunction against the project until the area can be thoroughly studied. And I mean thoroughly!"
Numerous calls to Bidwill were not returned, and neither were requests for comment from Cardinals vice president Michael Bidwill, a former federal prosecutor.
The team memos, combined with interviews with several Cardinals officials, players and others, detail an alleged conspiracy that might have gone undiscovered except for an unlikely Cardinals whistle-blower who contacted Farrell last month.
"She's a very brave woman, and she's already suffered repercussions," Farrell says. "She knew this might come back and bite her, but she couldn't stand by and watch what Bidwill was doing. Not after she learned about the five babies."
According to his field notes, environmental consultant Warner Shortridge's first indication of something unusual at the Glendale stadium site was a telltale grunt.
The Cardinals had hired Shortridge last March to survey the plot of land and assess what sorts of remediation might be required before construction. But according to the diary-like notes Shortridge kept of his activities that were obtained by Farrell and the environmental consortium, the faint grunting noise drew his attention to a startling sight:
"Observed mid-coitus two specimens of Gopherus agassizii," Shortridge wrote.
Since 1990, desert tortoise populations of the Mojave Desert, west and north of the Colorado River, have been listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tortoises found east and south of the Colorado, such as those in Arizona's Sonoran Desert, are considered to be less at-risk than their Mojave counterparts. However, Arizona tortoises are protected by state and federal laws, and cannot be removed from their natural habitat except under strict rules.
Growing to between six and 14 inches, the slow-moving reptiles feature a high-backed shell and small head, stumpy rear legs and scaled front limbs with tough claws for digging. Tortoises reach maturity at about 20 years, and it's believed they can live up to a century. The animals make few noises other than a grunting that the male emits during mating.
Shortridge began to track the location of the two animals after his initial discovery and estimated the age of the female at 55 years. This, coincidentally, is the same number of years since the last (and only) Cardinals championship season in 1947, when the then-Chicago Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 28-21 in a frozen late-December title game.
His notes also indicate that he immediately forwarded reports of his findings directly to Bill Bidwill, as he'd been instructed.
"Shortridge's notes make it clear that he reported everything to Bidwill. But they also make it clear that Bidwill gave him zero response," says Farrell. "That was a big mistake. If the Cardinals had moved quickly and had come clean about the discovery, studying the area and removing the tortoises under state law might have been a fairly straightforward affair."
Shortridge's notes show that he also kept the Cardinals owner informed as he located two additional male adult tortoises on the site, and as he observed the female, in June, build a nest and lay five eggs.
"Reported to Mr. B that there wasn't a thing we could do about the situation, not after the female laid eggs," wrote Shortridge on June 25.
Farrell explains the quandary that Shortridge and the Cardinals found themselves in:
"According to state guidelines, developers planning to move more than five tortoises for a construction project must notify the Game and Fish Department and ask for guidance. Shortridge had initially found four tortoises on the site, and the Bidwills might have figured they could still take care of things relatively quietly. But when the adult female laid eggs and then all five of those eggs hatched, that plan was shot to hell. All of a sudden they had nine tortoises and a huge bureaucratic headache. It's no mystery why the Bidwills came to believe these tortoises needed to disappear."
Shortridge continued to observe the nest, but heard nothing from Bidwill. Then, on July 10, the Cardinals bought out the remainder of his contract. Shortridge, who has since taken a position with the Colorado State Department of Natural Resources, did not answer numerous calls.
Internal team documents, however, show that Shortridge's abrupt departure came over the objections of then-general manager Bob Ferguson.
"It was the first sign of a split over this issue that would later grow to consume the entire team," Farrell says.
Nothing seems to have been done about the tortoises for weeks. Finally, with the football season under way and the Tourism and Sports Authority nearing a decision between the Glendale and Mesa stadium sites, Bidwill apparently concluded it was time to make the tortoise problem disappear.
Documents show that Bidwill entrusted the job of removing the tortoises to the team's longtime compliance officer, Frank Jantzen.
Team sources describe Jantzen, a personal friend of Bill Bidwill's, as a gregarious if somewhat diminutive man in his 40s known for his taste in exotic cars, flavored vodkas and younger women. At the time Farrell estimates Jantzen first began to move the reptiles early October it was common knowledge inside the team that Jantzen was romantically involved with a member of the Arizona Cardinals cheerleading squad.
Jennifer Morgan (not her real name) was a recent addition to the troupe, an ASU student who, in her Web site biography, describes herself as an ardent animal lover who enjoys working with autistic children.
It was Morgan who, after learning from Jantzen that the team was removing the tortoises illegally, eventually came forward, contacting Farrell and feeding him internal team documents that other similarly outraged insiders had smuggled to her.
New Times agreed to Farrell's request to keep Morgan's real name hidden.
"She's already feeling the heat," Farrell says. Recently, he points out, her photograph was removed from the Cardinals' official cheerleaders Web site.
Morgan initially agreed to speak with New Times, but later, on the advice of her attorney, changed her mind. But Farrell turned over transcripts of his taped interviews with her, sessions that he intends to include in the consortium's court filings.
According to Morgan, Jantzen first told her about the tortoises on October 8.
From the transcript: "Frank said he wanted to find the turtles a nicer home than a field in Glendale, so he told me he was going to pick up the mother and five babies, drive to Tempe and put them into the Town Lake. He said they'd be happier there. . . . That asshole. I told him, Do you think just because I'm a cheerleader I don't know that desert tortoises can't swim?' He then changed his story and said he was supposed to move the turtles to a safe place. But he never said where."
Morgan said Jantzen wouldn't talk about the tortoises after that confrontation. But later, in a futile bid to regain her affections, Jantzen produced an undated photograph taken of the five juveniles, cradled in his hands.
Farrell obtained a copy of the photo, but he says it's been impossible to determine when or where it was taken.
"She suspected that some tortoises were left at the location. And as for the babies, Jantzen wouldn't tell her anything," Farrell says.
"And you have to remember what was happening at that time. Just the week before," Farrell adds, "the state Court of Appeals had rejected John F. Long's attempt to overturn a ruling on the legality of the Tourism and Sports Authority. As far as [Jennifer] knew, the stadium was a done deal, and bulldozers would soon be heading out to bear down on those tortoises."
For Morgan, the pressure boiled over several days later at Sun Devil Stadium during a game with the Dallas Cowboys on October 20.
"It was an exciting game, but Jennifer looked terrible," says another cheerleader, Cyndee Embry. "When I asked her what was wrong, she blurted out the whole thing. About Frank, about the turtle babies. It was unbelievable. But plenty of people on the sidelines overheard it."
News of the turtle problem spread quickly inside the team over the next few days, team sources say. Later that week, on October 24, the team flew to San Francisco in first place with a 4-2 record. "By the time that plane landed," says one team source, "no one in the organization was in the dark about what the Bidwills had done."
Team sources denied that the Cardinals' subsequent 1-9 slide had anything to do with the brewing scandal. But they concede that the timing of Morgan's outburst and of the team's subsequent poor play is noteworthy.
New Times contacted noted football analyst Charles "Bump" Reed at his hotel room in Nashville while he was preparing for last weekend's telecast of the playoff game between the Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers. "Playing for Bill Bidwill is never easy," Reed said in his familiar croak, "but none of us could figure out why the team went so flat in the middle of the season. It was obvious those guys had suddenly lost heart. This tortoise thing sounds off the wall, but everything about the Cardinals is off the wall."
Players interviewed for this story denied that the tortoise issue contributed to the team's poor play.
"I didn't see no turtle throwing all those interceptions," said one defensive lineman.
Jake Plummer, the source of those misdirected passes, declined to be interviewed. However, sources close to Plummer say that the quarterback, an ardent outdoorsman with a passion for Discovery Channel and Animal Planet programming, was "deeply troubled" by the tortoise revelations and is leaning toward leaving the team, even if the Cardinals offer him a new contract.
"This has driven a wedge between Jake and Bidwill like nothing on the playing field could," says a friend of Plummer's.
As the weeks went on and the losses added up, Bill Bidwill found himself under increasing scrutiny in the Cardinals' locker room. Several sources say that what had happened to the tortoises became as much of an issue inside the organization as the nagging questions about head coach Dave McGinnis' play calling.
Things came to a head during a team meeting in late November, when starting running back Thomas Jones smashed his right hand against a locker room wall after an unidentified teammate said he hoped the tortoises were dead. Jones broke the fourth metacarpal bone in his left hand in his outburst, which ended his season, though he and team officials agreed on an improbable cover story that he'd been reaching for a telephone at his home when the injury occurred.
Still, news of the tortoises stayed in-house as the season mercifully wound down and, concurrently, as the Arizona Supreme Court was deciding whether to review the stadium-funding mechanism.
The state Legislature created the Tourism and Sports Authority in 2000 to select a plot of land and raise money for the stadium. Locations in Tempe, Mesa, downtown Phoenix, Avondale and west Phoenix were all considered and ultimately rejected in favor of the 180-acre Glendale site. Developer John F. Long threw a wrench in the process, however, asking the state's courts to consider whether the TSA itself was constitutional. When the state Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal last month, Long's suit was dead and the final hurdle it seemed had been overcome.
But things fell apart for the Bidwills after a long-scheduled personal appearance at the Phoenix Zoo on December 7 by Jennifer Morgan and other cheerleaders.
"She saw all the animals there, especially the babies, and she completely broke down," cheerleader Embry tells New Times. "I told her, Honey, you have to do something about this.' And I guess she did."
Morgan soon contacted the Tucson offices of Ogden Farrell, a Native American scientist turned environmental activist whose legal victories against seemingly overwhelming odds have been chronicled by 60 Minutes and Newsweek, among other media.
The politically savvy Farrell is best known locally for his successful effort to have an endangered amphibian species, the Arizona Lesser Salamander, reclassified as a reptile so it would fall under the protections of the Southwest Rare Reptile Preservation Act. In that case, a federal judge ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to reconfigure the flow of the San Pedro River to accommodate the newly classified reptile.
"Ogden has a proven track record winning these kinds of battles," says fellow environmental activist Will Brooks of the Riparian Defense Institute. "He convinced the entire Arizona congressional delegation that since the Lesser Salamander was four-legged and hairless, it met the definitions of the act. Even [just-retired representative] Bob Stump went along. The guy is good."
Added Brooks, "Ogden Farrell is the Joe Montana of environmentalists."
Constantly in demand, Farrell has held up or killed construction of dams, hospitals, malls and whole subdivisions.
Americans for Reasonable Wildlife (ARW), a conservative, industry-backed think tank, annually rates Farrell in its top 10 list of "public enemies." ARW director of communications W. Vernon Plummer (no relation to the Cardinals quarterback) says Farrell arguably has done more harm to American business interests than Osama bin Laden. "Farrell's name alone is enough to make a developer's sphincter tighten," Plummer says.
"Look, the only thing he hasn't squashed is a major sports stadium. I don't think it's an accident that Farrell is suddenly on the scene with just days to go before groundbreaking," Plummer adds. "If it wasn't the tortoises, it would be something else. A fucking cactus-eating gnat or something."
In fact, Farrell has been involved in many well-publicized national efforts to save species, including mammals (Preble's Meadow-Jumping Mouse, the Giant Kangaroo Rat, the Alabama Beach Mouse), reptiles (the Island Night Lizard, the Bluetail Mole Skink) and fish (the Slender Chub, the Pahrump Poolfish).
"He's a hired gun who jets from his fancy Tucson home base to wherever a dollar can be made," claims Plummer, adding that by taking advantage of EPA regulations, which award damages to environmental groups, Farrell netted more than $1 million last year. "Around here, we refer to him as a species we wish was endangered the yellow-bellied tax-sucker."
Farrell scoffs at Plummer's accusations, calling the ARW a tool of big business. "I'm hated by the kind of people who think wildlife is best served on a plate," counters the canny 45-year-old.
He noted that it isn't every day he's tipped to a major environmental scandal by an attractive cheerleader. "I have to say, I was a bit skeptical when she called. But when I saw her documents, I knew we had a first and goal from the one-yard line."
Though many residents wish the Cardinals themselves were slated for extinction the franchise, not the bird Farrell knows that others will react angrily to his legal challenge, which could hold up construction of the stadium indefinitely. But he hopes the controversy will educate the public about protected desert animals.
"It's time to draw a line in the sand," Farrell fumes. "No stadium should be built until we know what happened to those tortoises. The public has a right to know. Did Bidwill and his goon separate those five babies from their mother and toss them into Tempe Town Lake? For his sake, I hope he didn't. But I wouldn't be surprised if he gave them to other NFL owners as Christmas presents."
Without explanation, after the regular season ended, the Cardinals removed compliance officer Jantzen's name from the team's Web site.
And as for whistle-blower Jennifer Morgan, her sister cheerleaders say they don't expect her back after the off-season. "She's in seclusion. She knows this thing's going to blow sky-high after her allegations are heard in court," Farrell says.
Several legal experts consulted by New Times agreed that the seriousness of the situation cannot be overstated: If the allegations are proven in court, little-known NFL rules make it possible that the Bidwills will be forced to cede ownership of the team.
Says John Rocklin, a former federal prosecutor and sports law expert who has consulted with the NFL and the NBA, "I can't comment on specific cases. But hypothetically speaking, the Bidwills are in a world of legal hurt. The league has binding rules regarding the moral turpitude of owners. They're rarely invoked, but you put together the potential violation of state and federal environmental laws, a possible criminal conspiracy indictment and an eroded fan base, and you've got yourself an interesting scenario."
Sports marketing guru Lynn Stelling-Asoki points out that the Valley's negative perception of the Bidwills could weigh against them. "Imagine the league faced with overwhelming fan outrage in the form of a petition drive to wrench the team from the Bidwills, for example. The league could decide that, in the face of sustained public outrage, continued support of the family is too much of a liability and use the turpitude rules to oust them."
Stelling-Asoki compared the Cardinals' situation to that faced in 1984 by then-Baltimore Colts owner Bob Irsay, who moved his team to Indianapolis that year in an infamous nighttime escape.
"The way fans in Phoenix feel already, they might help the team pack," she says. "But the general public isn't yet aware what a dramatic development this is going to turn out to be not until New Times hits the streets, anyway. I'm saying, these allegations are so egregious, the Bidwills probably won't get the chance to whisk the team away."
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Ogden Farrell says he's more curious about what happened to the tortoises than what may happen to the Bidwills.
Farrell asked New Times to alert citizens that, if they stumble upon the missing tortoises, they should immediately call authorities. (Farrell's organization, the Sonoran Desert Conservancy, can be reached at 602-238-4804 or at SDConservancy@hotmail.com.) Even do-gooders, he points out, can do the tortoise more harm than good: Picking up a plodding tortoise can cause it to panic and empty its bladder, leading to lethal dehydration.
"After we expose Bill Bidwill's wrongdoing," Farrell adds, "I have a feeling he'll be the one with the bladder problem."