Representative Don Kenney, the public servant best known for his ability to fit $55,000 in cash into a gym bag, was a very noticeable defendant at the group arraignment last week.

For one thing, he came alone, unlike some of the accused, who were accompanied by friends and spouses. For another, he sat right near the front of the courtroom, directly behind the row of gray-suited lawyers, while other indicted legislators slumped onto benches near the back. And while most of the accused barely stirred, he kept fidgeting and leaning forward, in the exact posture of the teenage boys who every week file into Mormon chapels like Kenney's own and cluster together impatiently on similar benches, yearning for the service to be over. It was as though, having agreed to be the "quarterback" during the legislative "sting" that had brought him before the bench, he was still perceiving himself as a leader and thought he should stand out.

To those who knew him well, he stood out for another reason--because he was there at all, and needn't have been. Ever since news of the "sting" had broken, political observers had been pointing to some legislators and figuring that tiny intellects could have made them vulnerable to offers of easy money and power during a setup so obvious that it should have been spotted even by someone who doesn't speak English. But these onlookers were not able to pinpoint any transparent weaknesses or motives that had fated Kenney to become involved.

"Chuy Higuera is a joke. Jim Hartdegen is a decent man, but nobody has accused him of being very bright. Carolyn Walker is one of those nice ladies, a hugger, who reminds me of Aunt Jemima," says attorney Gary Peter Klahr, a friend and business partner of Kenney's since they attended law school together, who is also defending Kenney's co-defendant, Representative Sue Laybe, against the state's charges. "The only one of them who had it made in this world is Don Kenney. He has such tremendous talent. It just doesn't make sense that he is involved.

"If I were his lawyer, I wouldn't plead entrapment. I'd plead insanity."
Others were worried that Kenney was dragged into the "sting" operation by law enforcement officials who feared his willingness, as new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to review the state's strict criminal code. They pointed out that Kenney had already made it clear that, where his predecessor Jim Skelly had declared law and order to be government's first priority, Kenney would reconsider measures that would directly affect, among other things, the funding of law enforcement agencies.

Primary among things slated for review was the Criminal Justice Enhancement Fund (CJEF), a slush fund created by a surcharge on fines that pours practically unrestricted into law enforcement's hands. Insiders say that Kenney supported a movement to think CJEF through again.

"I feel a little uneasy about this sting, because he had let it be known that he was willing to look anew at these things," says Representative John Kromko. "And if you have this guy who is going to cut funds, it is something you think about, if you are a cop."

The charge is vehemently denied by the County Attorney's Office ("Nobody was targeted," says spokesman Bill FitzGerald), and even those most suspicious of the motives of the sting's architects cannot point to anything except circumstances to prove their theory. (Kenney himself won't be interviewed.)

What emerges from their comments and others', instead of definitive proof of a frame-up, is a portrait of a bright but not influential official who may have been coming into his era of power when he zipped his political future shut along with his bulging duffel. But he wasn't into that era yet: His peers say again and again that it was absurd for Kenney to believe he could have mustered the support among his colleagues that would have allowed a bill supporting legalized gambling to pass through the House. (And if he believed it at first, he couldn't have believed it for long, as he failed again and again to convince his colleagues to take dirty money. Neither Leo Corbet nor Candice Nagel nor Jack Jewett nor Stan Barnes--among others--bought into the sting, despite Kenney's efforts to involve them that sometimes went on for months.) Kenney was a "quarterback" who never even had a chance at the ball.

They also talk about a man who never demonstrated openly that he was either ambitious or slippery, but who filled many fellow legislators with uneasiness they couldn't pin down. "There was just a slickness, a lack of conviction," says one insider. Even so, there was nothing that would have led the speaker to suspect Kenney was capable of bribery and extortion, as the "sting's" transcripts have revealed. "I was shocked," the insider says. "As much as I didn't care for the guy, I couldn't believe how disgusting those tapes are."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Deborah Laake