Elections

Battle Royale: Controversial Mary Rose Wilcox Is in the Political Fight of Her Life

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A powerhouse political machine, Gallego has a hard time masking his contempt for Wilcox. He says his decision to run against her was an easy one.

"I always knew that she was going to run, but I never thought she was good for the district," the 34-year-old two-term lawmaker says. "So I never contemplated stepping aside for her, for any reason. For other potential politicians, I probably would have thought about it, but not for her. This district needs a lot of work, a lot of attention, and I don't think she's really willing to do it."

In one campaign pamphlet, he highlights the land deal between Wilcox and APS, letting voters know that in addition to getting the APS property at a "deep discount, [she] then rented it back to APS for tens of thousands of dollars."

Wilcox responds that the utility needed a place to park its vehicles last year while it embarked on a nearby cleanup project.

"APS says, 'We need to pay you.' So they did a contract with us," she says, adding that the lease expires in August. "But everyone else uses it for free."

She says she and her husband don't charge the American Legion in Grant Park to use the property for overflow parking or for artists to use it to host community concerts or for the Democratic Party to use it for voter-registration rallies.

In 2005, New Times wrote about the deal Wilcox got when she and Earl bought a one-acre paved lot from APS, which regularly has business before the county supervisors ("Sweetheart Deal," June 16, 2005).

Phoenix real estate investor Michael A. Levine said at the time the "land should have gone for at least $675,000 and possibly for as much as $900,000" and even at a "fire sale" price, it would have fetched at least $450,000.

The couple paid $152,750, and the timing of the land deal made it even more suspect.

New Times wrote:

Interestingly, about the same time the Wilcoxes opened escrow on the property in February 2003, a major downtown planning effort led by APS and sports mogul Jerry Colangelo was being secretly put together.

Sometime in early 2003, downtown power brokers began work on a downtown master plan to guide a multibillion-dollar redevelopment project to transform the city's inner core over the next decade.

The electric utility was among the insiders participating in the early stages of developing the master plan. And Mary Rose Wilcox had to be aware of the planning effort through her membership on the board of directors of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership -- a civic and business group that encourages development and played a leading role in developing the master plan.

Colangelo told [New Times] in the fall of 2003 that he and other business and civic leaders wanted to keep their master plan out of the public arena for as long as possible to prevent land speculators from moving into the market and driving up prices .

It was during this time -- when a limited number of people knew that a major downtown redevelopment plan was in the works -- that APS had sold its property at a rock-bottom price to Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and her husband.

The 2005 New Times report by John Dougherty continued: Wilcox repeatedly voted on matters directly affecting APS, including high-profile issues such as where high-voltage power lines will be located and approval of a lucrative plan by an APS subsidiary, Northwind, to provide air conditioning to county buildings in downtown Phoenix.

And she did it without ever officially disclosing that she had engaged in a major financial transaction with APS.

Sam Castañeda Holdren, Wilcox's spokesman, says the parcels of land she and Earl have purchased over the years were bought with the expressed intention of revitalizing Grant Park, the barrio where Earl was raised.

"The land . . . is empty lots and parking lots around Grant Park," he says. "This is a poor neighborhood, and Mary Rose hopes someday to build nonprofit veterans housing across from the park and neighborhood recreation center."

Wilcox says she and Earl might even build a home there to replace the one they were forced to sell when Arpaio, working in concert with Thomas, slapped dozens of criminal charges on her with such gusto that a Superior Court judge said it was "the worst case of political vindictiveness" he'd ever seen.

Arpaio and Thomas, since disbarred, accused Wilcox of forgery, false swearing, perjury, and a slew of felony conflict-of-interest counts.

The former supervisor admits she could've done a better job over the years of filling out financial-disclosure forms. But she says she did nothing to deserve a laundry list of criminal indictments.

As Arpaio waited joyful in the wings watching his political enemies squirm, Thomas charged Wilcox with making "false statements or omissions in . . . financial-disclosure statements from 2002 through 2009."

Finally, Pima County Superior Court Judge John Leonardo threw Thomas off the case based on evidence that Thomas had a conflict of interest in going after Wilcox because of "his efforts to retaliate against members" of the county Board [of Supervisors] and "his attempts to gain political advantage by prosecuting those who oppose him politically," including Wilcox.

"His political alliance [with Arpaio], who misused the power of his office to target members of the [board] for criminal investigation," was another reason for his removal cited by the judge.

One of the deals that Thomas had begun to look into was her co-ownership of a Chili's franchise with Host International, the contractor for all food and beverage services at Sky Harbor's Terminal 4.

Wilcox says it was Host that approached her, asking whether she wanted a part of the concession contract after she unsuccessfully applied to open an airport version of her and her husband's El Portal Mexican restaurant.

In October 2009, the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, published a report, High Fliers: How Political Insiders Gained an Edge in Sky Harbor Concessions, detailing how Wilcox and Host officials' partnership violated city and federal rules.

The Goldwater report stated that in violation of city policy, Wilcox didn't pull any money out of her pocket to become a 30 percent owner of the Chili's. Instead, Host lent her the $450,000 buy-in money and then repaid itself out of Wilcox's share of the restaurant profits. And although federal rules dictate that each partner has to play an active role in the business, Wilcox didn't.

At the time, Phoenix required that minority-owned, disadvantaged businesses be included in these billion-dollar concessions.

The Goldwater report concluded that "firms certified as 'disadvantaged' often are little more than a name on the lease, brought in as partners by large concession companies to meet city-imposed goals.

"Mary Rose Wilcox eked out a small profit from a Mexican restaurant she owned in South Phoenix before she used her race and status as the owner of a 'disadvantaged' business to land a lucrative concession deal at Sky Harbor International Airport," the Goldwater report said. "The long-entrenched Democrat on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors reported $10,000 in profits from her El Portal restaurant in an August 2003 financial statement. In December 2004, Wilcox was brought into a joint venture to co-own a Chili's franchise, the only full-service bar and restaurant in the main lobby of Terminal 4. Seven months later, Wilcox reported profits of $113,000 from the Chili's deal alone."

Despite all the allegations against her by Arpaio and other political enemies, Wilcox insists she didn't do anything wrong and that Arpaio and Thomas' allegations in the deal were vetted by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk and Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores.

"With the utter lack of motive or evidence of any unlawful economic or political benefit from the financial-disclosure omissions, a reasonable juror would conclude that these omissions were an oversight, rather than conduct knowingly perpetrated to deceive the public," Flores wrote regarding Wilcox.

Just last month, Wilcox finally collected a $1 million-plus payout from the county for the anguish she and her family endured during the investigation by Arpaio and Thomas, who's running on the Republican ticket for Arizona governor.

"Everybody criticized me [for taking the money], but people don't know what happened," she says. "I had to sell our house. We had a really nice condo, and we had to sell it just to pay our bills. Our business [at El Portal] trickled down to nothing. People were terrorized, and they just weren't coming anymore."
She says she and Earl "had to use every penny from our retirement accounts."

Wilcox continues, "Yeah, I sued because we had to pay my lawyer. A lot of that fee will go for taxes, and to the debt I incurred, and for the terror that went through us with Arpaio's intent to destroy me. But I didn't let him. I did not let him."

Though Arpaio may have had an adverse effect on her business, her restaurant suffered other problems. In 2007, El Portal started getting a series of failing grades from county health inspectors. She eventually closed the popular spot for local lawmakers, political activists, and neighborhood leaders in 2010.

The eatery reopened this year but closed again in April because it was losing money again. The El Portal building now is headquarters for the Wilcox campaign's field operations.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo