BETRAYAL LESSONS

His appearance in the courtroom was a shock. We all remembered him as belligerent and fearless during the impeachment trial of Evan Mecham.

In those days, state Senator Jesus "Chuy" Higuera brandished a microphone in his hand as though it were the Sword of Damocles. Through sheer ferocity, Higuera was one of the most persistent of the pack that dragged the former governor to the ground.

In those days, Higuera sat in the last row of the Senate chamber. He was perpetually poised to leap into the fray at any criticism, actual or implied, against the honor of the Arizona State Senate.

On the other hand, Higuera had his critics. When the Arizona Republic took a poll to determine who were the smartest and dumbest members of the body, Chuy Higuera got the most votes--for being the most incompetent.

One day, Sam Steiger was on the witness stand during the Mecham trial. Steiger made several remarks that were not entirely respectful of the legislature.

Higuera leaped to his feet, whirling his microphone to untangle the cord. He exuded the same kind of eye-catching bravado as the bandito in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

"Is what you are trying to do here today also called character assassination?" Higuera demanded, trying to act wily.

Steiger didn't hesitate.
"Senator," Steiger said, "I prefer to think of it as candor, although you may think of it as whatever you like."

Higuera smiled and sat down. He was totally pleased with himself. He thought he had won. Obviously, he had no idea what Steiger meant.

Higuera entered Judge Michael Ryan's courtroom at 8:45 a.m. He moved directly into the rear row occupied by his wife and four-month-old daughter, Anna. Immediately, he took the baby in his arms.

This is the same dodge that U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini was pilloried for during his Ethics Committee appearance. It is called the "politician-with-child-in-arms defense."

Minutes later, Judge Ryan called Higuera to the bench for sentencing. Higuera had already entered a guilty plea to taking $4,040 from "J. Anthony Vincent" in a police and county attorney sting operation.

Higuera was videotaped while agreeing to vote for legalized gambling in Arizona. He also tried to cut himself in for the shrimp and fax concessions when the new casinos were built.

Higuera stood before the bench wearing a gray suit jacket with a tie. His head remained bowed all the time he stood there. He was accompanied by his lawyer, Tom Martinez.

There was a standing-room-only crowd in the courtroom. Everyone leaned forward, listening intently.

"I made a very stupid mistake," Higuera murmured to Judge Ryan, "but I am not a criminal."

Martinez, Higuera's lawyer, said: "There is nothing illegal about a legislator seeking business opportunities."

It would be easy to take a sentimental and forgiving view of Higuera's role.

But the tapes show that his behavior was not merely criminal. It reveals Higuera as a thief and a liar willing to sell out his constituents for money and future job security.

Judge Ryan told Higuera that he had studied the tapes, read all the files and the letters from citizens like Eddie Basha and state Senate President Pete Rios asking for clemency.

"I saw you in the Mecham proceedings," Judge Ryan said. "You abandoned those ideals . . . . This is a serious crime and I must punish you."

He ordered that Higuera spend two months in the county jail and be placed on probation for four years. Higuera has already returned the money he took in the sting operation.

Higuera's attorney pointed out to Judge Ryan the incredibly lenient sentence handed to former state Representative James Meredith.

Meredith, a real estate man with an income exceeding $100,000 per year, took more than twice as much ($9,300) as Higuera and was let off with no jail time and three years of probation.

Judge Ryan also acceded to Meredith's request that he be protected from being stripped of his real estate license.

Meredith's crime was, if anything, more reprehensible than Higuera's. Meredith took the money and buried it in the campaigns of his fellow legislators and that of gubernatorial candidate J. Fife Symington III so that he might curry enough favor to be elected majority leader.

"I felt I was dancing with the devil," Meredith said.
Judge Ryan pronounced Meredith's crime to be an aberration and permitted him to leave court a free man. His crime will not even go on his record as a felony.

Meredith's arrogance knows no bounds. "I made a stupid mistake," he said, "but I am no criminal."

Meredith is clever. His dance was no mistake. He made a calculated decision that was breathtakingly dishonest. It was a decision that was the product of a criminal mind.

Soon, none of us will even think about how our legislators so lightly betrayed us. It will be as if it never happened.

That's why I think there must be at least one full-fledged trial. We must see all the evidence. We must see Joseph Stedino testify under oath. We must see him cross-examined.

The ambitious County Attorney Richard Romley and Ruben Ortega, our devious police chief, headed an investigation in which approximately $1 million was expended.

No one knows where this money went. Romley says that it is money spent on the investigation. But the full accounting must remain secret, Romley insists.

I don't want to explode Romley's balloon. But it seems to me his entire strategy was predicated on a detestable strategy. He and his people created crimes where they didn't exist before.

Given the extraordinary amount of money Ortega and Romley's men tossed around, they would certainly have discovered the same degree of human failure in any profession.

Suppose they had taken their $1 million and dangled it before members of the police department or the County Attorney's Office? Isn't it clear to you that they would have created the same ratio of indictable behavior among cops and county attorneys that they did in the legislature?

We have learned only that some people can be bought. But we all knew that going in.

The first and third pullquotes below are musts. DJB.

Chuy exuded the same kind of eye-catching bravado as the bandito in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

It would easy to take a sentimental and forgiving view of Higuera's role.

Meredith's arrogance knows no bounds.

Suppose they had taken their $1 million and dangled it before members of the police department or the County Attorney's Office?

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