This summer, the parent company of Arizona Public Service poured $50,000 into a short-lived committee that helped the campaign of Robert Meza, a Democratic candidate for an Arizona legislative district in Phoenix.
The case not only exemplifies how far corporations go in order to influence even seemingly minor local races, but it also shows how far the law allows corporate influence to visibly, openly penetrate elections.
The circumstances of this PAC, Friends of Robert Meza, hit a singularly Arizonan nerve. APS has been heavily criticized for spending millions to influence electoral races in recent years.
Meza is a Democratic Arizona state senator representing District 30, which covers a chunk of northwest Phoenix. Having reached his term limits as a state senator, he is running this year for the Arizona House of Representatives, in the same district.
Meza told Phoenix New Times that he was not aware of the PAC until we asked him about it.
“I had heard of other PACs in our legislative race,” he said. “I’d never seen Friends of Robert Meza.” He said he was not aware that Pinnacle West had donated $50,000 to the PAC, and he disputed the idea that the money affected the outcome of the primary.
“Even without the money — you say $50,000 — I would’ve still won,” Meza said, adding that he had raised $95,000 on his own. Campaign finance records show he raised less than that, about $87,600 as of August 11.
“I guess they back certain candidates,” Meza said of Pinnacle West. “I think if it’s legal, [Pinnacle West] can do whatever they want,” Meza said. “I can’t tell them what to be doing.”
In March, Meza co-authored an opinion article in the Arizona Republic opposing Prop 127, the renewable energy ballot initiative that APS fiercely opposes. The next month, the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group that advocates for clean energy and against fossil fuel interests and is a fierce critic of Meza, reported that Meza had had received "thousands of dollars in personal income" for work done for groups funded by APS.
Friends of Robert Meza registered as a political action committee on July 8, 2018. On July 25, cash began flying, campaign finance records show. That day, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce donated $5,000, and the PAC spent $6,000 on signs, flyers, door hangers, handouts, and canvassers.
The next day, July 26, Pinnacle West donated $50,000, and the PAC spent $21,740 on more flyers, handouts, door hangers and canvassers.
On July 27, the PAC bought $20,452 of direct mailers and spent $4,160 on website services. It also spent $2,000 on legal services with Statecraft, a Phoenix-based law firm that counts Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina among its clients.
Meza, along with Raquel Teran, won in the Democratic primary on August 28. Meza received 3,898 votes (31.8 percent), Teran took 3,690 (30.1 percent), and the next closest candidate, Bill Brotherton, received 2,342 votes (19.1 percent).
The treasurer of Friends of Robert Meza is Mario Diaz, a lobbyist who is advising Governor Doug Ducey’s campaign for re-election this fall. He declined to answer questions, instead referring New Times to Kory Langhofer, an attorney with Statecraft.
“There’s nothing unusual about this,” Langhofer said. “Six or eight years ago, this really would’ve been something, but now there’s nothing illegal or even unusual about this.”
The $50,000 question, in these kinds of cases, is whether the candidate coordinated with the PAC or the donor. Coordination is illegal, because otherwise, PACs could be used to skirt limits on campaign contributions, set at $5,100.
“I have absolutely no reason to believe that there was coordination on this campaign,” said Langhofer.
Some direct donors to Meza’s campaign, separate from the PAC, have ties to APS. Several of them are people associated with Veridus, a lobbying firm that works on initiatives like Arizonans for Sustainable Energy Policy, to which Pinnacle West has contributed $3.2 million. Wendy Briggs, a partner at Veridus, donated a total of $450 to the Committee to Elect Robert Meza. Jeff Sandquist, an attorney at Veridus, and Jay Kaprosy, the director, each donated $200. Others at Veridus donated $50 or $100.
Another noteworthy donor? Donald E. Brandt, the president and CEO of APS, who donated $200 to Meza’s campaign in 2018. Brandt has contributed to other politicians as well, including Governor Doug Ducey and Debbie Lesko, the Republican congresswoman running to keep her newly acquired seat in Congressional District 8. This year he has also donated relatively small amounts, typically around a few hundred dollars each, to over a dozen candidates for the Arizona Senate and House of Representatives.
Friends of Robert Meza is a single-candidate PAC. As the name suggests, these kinds of political action committees are dedicated to supporting or opposing one candidate. At the federal level, such PACs are par for the course.
So far this year, 211 single-candidate super PACs have spent more than $58 million in the United States, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan non-profit that tracks money in politics. In 2014, the last midterm election year, 105 single-candidate super PACs spent more than $55 million on federal elections.
“It’s not uncommon to see super PACs created to support a specific candidate in a primary,” said Andrew Mayersohn, a researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics. In federal campaigns, “it’s also not unusual for those to be funded by one big donor,” he added.
But in Arizona, the single-candidate PAC scene is different. “I don’t think I’ve seen too many of them in Arizona thus far,” said Thomas Collins, the executive director of the Arizona Clean Elections Commission. “It is a lot of money to spend in a legislative race, especially a primary,” he added, referring to Friends of Robert Meza.
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Even legal contributions can undermine public trust in government, he said.
“I think it is unrealistic to expect the public to believe that such generous expenditures on behalf of a candidate by a single entity are not going to have some impact on the candidate,” Collins said. “It makes clear that [Pinnacle West] ... wanted him to get the nomination. And that was their main goal.”
“I think we all know that when you’re getting large amount of money in your race — it happens all the time — those politicians feel beholden to special interests,” said Roopali Desai, an elections lawyer at the firm Coppersmith Brockelman. She added that a candidate who receives APS money probably has “a sense of obligation to them.”
(Correction: This article previously misstated the position Debbie Lesko is seeking.)