Corporation Commission candidate Sam George is Sam Vagenas with a new name and old tricks

Sam Vagenas is one of the most interesting characters in recent Arizona political history.

As a consultant, Vagenas made an absurd amount of money pushing the pot passions of lefty billionaires John Sperling, George Soros, and Peter B. Lewis in states around the country.

With their financial backing, Vagenas helped pass two pro-marijuana ballot initiatives here, only to see his efforts gutted by the Legislature. (He had to give up his third attempt because its clumsy phrasing would have freed medical marijuana users to deal drugs to kids — and actually required the Department of Public Safety to give out pot, for free. No joke.)

Then, as media consultant to former Secretary of State Dick Mahoney, Vagenas was linked to the forgeries that became the biggest scandal of the 2002 gubernatorial race. The documents, faxed to New Times and other publications, purported to be internal memos showing that then-Attorney General Janet Napolitano had covered up the Colorado City polygamy crisis. They were fakes.

Department of Public Safety investigators linked Vagenas to the documents through cell phone records. But he refused to answer questions, and the agency "inexplicably" dropped the investigation, as my colleague John Dougherty wrote at the time.

After that, Sam Vagenas disappeared.

He's back. But now he's Samuel George — and he wants you to vote him onto the Arizona Corporation Commission.

When Vagenas legally changed his name in 2004, it may have been that he simply wanted a more mellifluous moniker. It's hard enough to run for office with a name like Barack Hussein Obama; surely, it can't be any easier to deal with a name that's redolent of genitalia.

But I think it's more likely that Sam Vagenas wanted to unload his political baggage. Most political insiders will give you a knowing look when the word "Vagenas" comes up — he's infamous for playing fast and loose.

The problem is, despite the new name, the same dirty tricks have continued in his career as a candidate.

Samuel George first ran for office in 2006, two years after jettisoning the "Vagenas." His goal? A seat on the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Board — an unpaid seat, I might point out, on a board tasked with the tedious business of supervising the distribution of water from the Central Arizona Project canal. Talk about a snooze.

George spent $57,000 of his own money on his campaign, only to finish dead last.

Then he filed a lawsuit. Unbelievably, for an unpaid seat on a board that attracts little attention or press coverage, George had bothered to hire a pollster to contact nearly 2,000 voters.

The polls suggested, to George at least, that he should have won. Surely, the explanation wasn't that the typical voter couldn't care less about the Central Arizona Water Conservation District and would say anything to get off the phone when asked about it.

No, the explanation was hanging chads.

Sorry — make that undervotes. George's lawsuit claims that the county recorder "failed to properly program the optical scan ballot reading machines." It asked for a hand recount.

Can you believe it? For an unpaid seat on a water conservation board? And George didn't just sue the elected officials supervising the election; he also named the candidates he thought shouldn't win.

That meant they had to hire lawyers, too. Nice.

Court records indicate that George stopped his legal challenge just one day after county workers allowed him to examine the ballots. How much do you want to bet that his findings didn't even begin to support his conspiracy theory?

But Vagenas/George wasn't done. Screw the water district — he decided to run for statewide office.

And even though all four Democratic candidates for the corporation commission are in remarkable agreement about the issues, their primary race this year also has had plenty of controversy.

That's because George and his allies tried to get a rival kicked off the ballot.

They deny this, of course. But here are the facts.

George approached a Flagstaff city councilwoman, Kara Kelty, who'd told state Democratic Party leaders that she was interested in running for the corporation commission. George said he was planning to invest $350,000 of his own money into the campaign and asked if she would want to run as part of his "team," as Kelty confirms.

He wasn't just offering camaraderie.

In debates, George will tell you that he helped to write and pass the Clean Elections law. Surely he knows how he'd be fleecing the Clean Elections system by spending so much money in an uncontested primary.

Clean Elections candidates usually would get just $82,000 in public financing for the primary. But if a self-funded candidate like George pours money into the primary race, the Clean Elections Commission must match the amount — up to $246,000 — for his opponents.

By running on a ticket with a rich, self-funded candidate, Kelty would get the benefit of running as a team, plus a giant cash infusion. Ostensibly, the money would equalize the playing field in the primary. But because George and Kelty would be running as a team, in reality, the cash would boost her name recognition for the general election. And probably his, too.

Thanks to George's willingness to spend, two Democratic candidates could ultimately enjoy twice the funding of their Republican rivals — courtesy of public money.

Kind of fishy, eh? But the Clean Elections Commission tells me it's totally legal.

"That's not a problem at all," says Mike Becker, the commission's voter-education manager. "The only stipulation that exists is that each candidate has to write a check directly to their vendors" — even if they're collaborating on advertising.

That sounds crazy to me. I don't care that it's legal. It completely violates the spirit of the law. (Or, at least, what we thought was the spirit. Considering that Vagenas/George helped to write the thing, who knows whether these loopholes were intentional?!)

Kelty, to her credit, didn't bite. She tells me that she declined George's offer to run as a team because she was concerned about mixing Clean Elections funding with a privately funded candidate.

So George went out and formed a team with two candidates: Sandra Kennedy and Paul Newman. Both former state legislators, he's now a county supervisor in Cochise County. And though they're likable, their biggest plus may be names that would look fabulous on a road sign.

And then Kennedy's backers tried to get Kelty kicked off the ballot.

Records show that a Phoenix voter named Thomas Murphy filed a lawsuit challenging Kelty's petitions. Both Murphy and the lawyer handling the suit, Tucson attorney David Karnas, have donated the maximum amount permissible to Sandra Kennedy's campaign.

Karnas initially took my call and told me that he didn't know Murphy personally — and that he, Karnas, had no ax to grind in the race. He says Murphy contacted his firm only because he specializes in this type of work.

So why did Murphy file the suit, I asked. "He is politically, philosophically, and legally opposed to Kara Kelty," Karnas said. Yikes. When pressed, Karnas promised to contact his client to find out more.

Before we could reconnect, I discovered something interesting: Karnas has a history with Sandra Kennedy's campaign manager, Steve Brittle. In fact, Karnas filed more than 90 lawsuits on Brittle's behalf, according to a long-ago profile in the Phoenix Business Journal.

When I called Karnas back with that information, he didn't return my calls.

For the record, Sandra Kennedy says she knows absolutely nothing about this and had no idea that her campaign manager had a history of working with the lawyer who filed the suit against her opponent.

Regardless, the suit has been dropped. As Karnas admits, the challengers realized that even if all the "questionable" petitions were thrown out, Kelty would still have enough signatures to make the ballot.

What, they couldn't figure that out before filing their suit? I have to wonder whether they were hoping Kelty would just roll over and go back to Flagstaff, where the weather is nice.

Instead, she got Andy Gordon, of the super-connected Democratic firm Coppersmith Gordon Schermer & Brockelman, to take the case pro bono.

That makes me think there are other Democrats who aren't so thrilled about this kind of chicanery. That's a really good thing.

Since they couldn't kick Kara Kelty off the ballot, it's unclear whether Sam Vagenas/Samuel George can still execute his plan to triple his Clean Elections funding for his "team." After all, it's not just his team in the race — Kelty will also get an infusion of cash if George spends wildly.

One of these four candidates is not going to make it to the general election.

Presidential politics aside, there's no election more important to Arizona this fall than the three seats being contested on the Arizona Corporation Commission.

You can blame Al Gore for that. Now that "climate change" is a global buzzword, everyone is in a tizzy to do something to stop carbon emissions. And, as any realist will tell, the power to do something is largely not in the hands of individuals. Whether or not you believe in global warming, it's an undeniable fact: If we're serious about reducing carbon emissions, we've got to reduce our reliance on coal-burning power plants.

The corporation commission, despite being composed of Republicans ostensibly less inclined to do something, heard the siren call. They enacted rules mandating that Arizona utilities derive at least 15 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2025.

That's going to cost consumers, unquestionably. APS has already slapped a surcharge onto its customers' bills; other utilities are sure to follow.

It could also cost the only incumbent running for re-election this fall. Barry Wong voted to enact the renewable standards. Now he'll have to defend that vote in a Republican primary chock-full of candidates, some of them hostile to the very idea of global warming.

The libertarian Goldwater Institute has filed a lawsuit questioning whether the commission has the right to set the standards. And some of the Republican candidates have vowed to repeal them — even as some of the Democratic candidates call them "baby steps" and threaten to take the requirement further.

This election matters.

And that's why I find this whole Samuel George/Sam Vagenas thing so unsettling.

We're going to be blitzed with advertising asking us to support Samuel George and his slate of Democratic candidates.

But as the slate has already shown, the innocuous "Samuel George" name may well be a Trojan horse for Vagenas-style electioneering. Surely, the Democrats can do better than that.

Not to mention this: Doing something isn't always good enough. You have to do it smartly.

Think about the horrible mess that ensued when Jeff Groscost tried to do something to encourage hybrid vehicles. Groscost meant well, but he ended up costing the state $100 million — and subsidizing gas-guzzling trucks.

You don't think the renewable energy market has the same pitfalls? Consider this: Sam Vagenas/George's biggest patron, John Sperling, is currently pushing a renewable-energy initiative in California that environmentalists there actually oppose. According to the Los Angeles Times, they say the initiative is riddled with loopholes. The California Solar Energies Commission claims the Sperling plan could "slam the brakes on renewable energy development in the state."

There is a right way to do something. There is also, clearly, a wrong way.

I contacted Sam Vagenas/Samuel George to talk about all this. He's ignored me.

It's not like I haven't been pushy. First, I sent a message to his official campaign e-mail address. I got an auto-reply message saying he was out of town — which, stupidly, I actually believed. I even pushed this story back for a week to accommodate his supposed schedule.

Meanwhile, Samuel George has been popping up at events all over town. I keep getting phone calls: "Dude, your boy Vagenas showed up at the debate today." Or, "Aren't you looking for Sam Vagenas? He was at this union event last night."

And politicians wonder why we reporters get so bitchy.

I called the number listed on George's campaign finance report. It's got no voice mail. So I tried his other e-mail address, the one for the consulting company he ostensibly owns. It's been shut down. I even told one of the members of his team, Sandra Kennedy, that I was looking for him. She promised to forward the message.


I finally started to get the picture: He doesn't want to talk to New Times. Fine.

But at some point, he's going to have to explain himself to the voters. And I don't think they're going to like this crap any more than I do.

I watched a recent debate featuring the four Democratic candidates — George's "solar team" and Kara Kelty. And I was struck, throughout the hour-long event, by just how good Kelty is on the issues.

She would be the Republicans' worst nightmare: an attractive, articulate woman who doesn't pander and doesn't condescend. She gets the economic issues. She gets the need for renewable energy, but she explains it in a way even a conservative could get behind. And she's smart.

I'm such a know-it-all that I'm never impressed when I watch this kind of stuff. But when she started talking about net-metering, I literally started taking notes.

Meanwhile, Sandra Kennedy looks like a deer caught in the headlights. (One sample reply, when asked about excessive train traffic in some parts of the state: "Railroads is a — and I think about the new high speed — thank you, high-speed railroads — transportation should be non-coal-electrified." Huh?)

And as for the former Sam Vagenas, he bears an unpleasant resemblance to David Guest, that creepy-looking guy who used to be married to Liza Minnelli. He literally looks as if his face is melting. And when he repeats "energy independence" and "solar" over and over like some pollster has determined the magic words to sell his candidacy, it's downright uncomfortable.

He's the political genius; not me. But if the Democrats are really serious about renewable energy, and if climate change really is the big issue this year, you'd think they could do better than a woman who doesn't even seem to understand the issues and a plastic-looking guy with a fake name.

Of course, they may do better. We'll see in September.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske