Stephen Lemons Column

Arizona AG Mark Brnovich Exhibits Backbone in Going After Corrupt Institution's Chairwoman

Journalists are a notoriously cynical bunch. So when a politician up and does the right thing, especially in a one-party state rife with corruption, the knee-jerk reaction is: What are you doing for an encore?

Thus it was with Attorney General Mark Brnovich's post-Thanksgiving press conference, where he carved up Arizona Corporation Commission Chairwoman Susan Bitter Smith like a roasted Butterball, announcing that his office is seeking Bitter Smith's removal from the AZCC for her alleged conflicts of interest.

A Republican holding another Republican accountable is rare enough in Arizona politics (both Brnovich and Bitter Smith are GOPers), but the scrum wanted to know about the AG's ongoing investigations into other commissioners on the powerful, GOP-controlled AZCC. When was Brnovich gonna line 'em all up for a firing squad?

Brnovich declined to comment on other AG probes into the CorpCom cesspool while admitting, with a slight grin, that the AZCC had become "the full employment act for our office."

This comment alone should give you an indication of where Brnovich is coming from on the issue of public corruption.

Well, that and Brnovich's appointment at the beginning of the year of veteran prosecutor and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Don Conrad to head the AG's criminal division.

Conrad is a Democrat who once served in the same capacity for Terry Goddard when Goddard was AG.

Granted, as far as political targets go, Bitter Smith is more a meandering moose than menacing mountain lion, despite the AZCC's power as a regulatory body.

In other words, a large, slow-moving bullseye, if ever there was one.

Indeed, Bitter Smith's violation of Arizona Revised Statute 40-101, the key law cited in the AG's petition for a special action to the Arizona Supreme Court asking for her removal, seems pretty blatant.

The law states that if someone is employed by or has an "official relation to" or enjoys a financial interest in a corporation regulated by the AZCC, then that person "shall not be elected, appointed to, or hold the office of commissioner."

Point being, the AZCC regulates corporations that provide telephone services (among others). And Bitter Smith long has been a registered lobbyist for two affiliates of the cable giant Cox Communications, which offers bundled services, including telephone service, to its customers.

Bitter Smith also is executive director of the Southwest Cable Communications Association, which counts as members Cox, Comcast, Suddenlink, and Time Warner, which, according to the AG's complaint, all "provide phone service regulated by the [AZCC]."

Moreover, the SWCCA's members pay dues, from which Bitter Smith is paid her yearly salary of more than $150,000.

"Which raises the question," Brnovich said at his press conference, "if she's working 40 hours a week and making $150,000 a year as the executive director [of the SWCCA], what is she doing for her time as corporation commissioner?"

Brnovich is no liberal Democrat, and he won’t start acting that way anytime soon, especially if he wants his career in Arizona politics to continue. However, he is exhibiting integrity and the backbone to go with it.

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True, Bitter Smith legally can moonlight on her job as a commissioner, for which the public pays her nearly $80,000 a year.

But she cannot moonlight for corporations that the AZCC regulates. In fact, she cannot have any "official relation" to such corporations under the law.

Yet, brazenly, year after year, even after taking office in 2013, Bitter Smith authorized payment for her name and photo to appear in the Arizona Capitol Times' Book of Lobbyists, promoting herself as SWCCA's public face.

The 2015 ad lists her "areas of expertise" as "cable television, local government, telecommunications, wireless telephone," and it notes that she "lobbies on behalf of cable television [and] telecommunications."

Bitter Smith argues that she lobbies only for the cable side of these various businesses, but the AG's 900-page complaint painstakingly details how intricately entwined these phone and cable services are, as if the endless cable TV ads offering bundling weren't enough proof.

"This isn't getting into a gray area or someone skating close to the line," Brnovich explained at one point, adding, "[Bitter Smith] clearly violated the law."

When I asked Brnovich what message his hard line on Bitter Smith should send to his fellow Republicans, his response was refreshing.

"We don't want to go after people just to go after them," he replied. "That being said, if someone's breaking the law, they should expect this office, regardless of who they are, to aggressively investigate and prosecute these cases.

"No person," he concluded, tapping the lectern for emphasis, "no person is above the law."

After my initial blog post on Brnovich's presser, I received plenty of messages, mostly from Democrats, pointing out areas where they found Brnovich lacking, from their point of view.

For instance, Brnovich is suing the Environmental Protection Agency over clean-air regulations, and soon he will be arguing for undoing the work of Arizona's Independent Redistricting Commission before the U.S. Supreme Court, the latter being the local Republicans' second stab at invalidating the AIRC.

I disagree with Brnovich on these and many other issues, including his appeal of a federal court's order allowing qualified DREAMers to obtain driver's licenses.

But Brnovich is not a liberal Democrat, and I don't expect him to start acting that way anytime soon, especially if he wants his career in Arizona politics to continue.

Nevertheless, Brnovich is exhibiting integrity and the backbone to go with it.

Democrats do not want to concede that to a Republican of any stripe, and while I understand the sentiment, I fear I may be worm fodder by time the local Donkey-Kongs achieve any sort of political parity with Arizona tuskers.

I mean, Copper State Dems could not even muster enough voters in 2014 to deny the daffy Diane Douglas the job of state schools superintendent over her far more educated and experienced rival.

And Dems care more about education than just about anything. So the Ds can kvetch all they want. What matters in politics is winning. Without that, you can't do jack, policy-wise.

Meanwhile, the difference between Brnovich's administration and that of his corrupt predecessor, Tom Horne, is both dramatic and significant, and the move to oust Bitter Smith offers evidence to this effect.

Would Horne, also a Republican, have gone after Bitter Smith given the same set of circumstances?

Um, hell no. Horne was all about using the power of his office to gain political advantage, and he was so mired in his own perpetual wrongdoing that his moral compass was caked in mud.

The man who teed up the Bitter Smith matter for Brnovich, Chandler attorney Tom Ryan, agrees with me.

It was Ryan who submitted the initial complaint in September that led to Brnovich's recent filing with the state Supreme Court.

The Republican turned Independent helped bring an end to Horne's tenure by exposing Horne's use of his office as the AG's re-election headquarters.

In the past, Ryan also has gone after such nefarious politicos as former state Senate President Russell Pearce and sleazy political consultant Constantin Querard.

"I can ironclad guarantee you that Tom Horne wouldn't have done a damn thing about this," Ryan declared when I asked him about Brnovich's move.

He cited a similar complaint he made about Democrat-turned-Republican state Senator Carlyle Begay, which Horne "laughed off," according to Ryan.

"I give Brnovich a ton of credit," he told me. "It's a politically sensitive issue, going after a member of your own party. And I think it takes a lot of guts to do what he and Don Conrad have done here."

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons