News

DRUNK WITH POWER

Hugh Ennis likes a good joke. Especially when it has a cop theme. Take the toy police car resting near his window at the Liquor Department, for instance. Like the slapstick autos that zoom around a circus ring, this one looks as though a squad of battery-powered minicop-clowns will tumble out any minute, blowing whistles and stumbling over each other. But instead it holds a little bottle of whiskey. A whiskey-filled cop car in the office of the superintendent of the Department of Liquor Licenses and Control. Get it?

And then for a real knee-slapper, there's this spiked metal ball hanging from a chain on a coat rack near the desk. "That's my negotiating tool," says Ennis, and then he details how, back when he was a Phoenix cop, he confiscated the medieval-style weapon "from a drug addict."

The "negotiating tool" and the sauced-up squad car say a lot about the way things are at the Liquor Department. Current staffers, ex-employees and lawyers who practice before the State Liquor Board report strange goings-on since Ennis took over the department in 1988.

The Liquor Department's fifty-person staff issues liquor licenses and monitors establishments that already have them. The job is called "working liquor" by the law enforcement types attracted to it.

But Ennis has been criticized for turning the department into too much of a police-style agency complete with an internal-investigations bureau that targets employees within the department who cross the bosses.

The probes and counterprobes sometimes revolve around such themes as who called whom a "weenie." That particular controversy wound up in court.

One of the problems, critics say, is that the superintendent has a Dick Tracy management style, sees things in black or white and doesn't back down even when he knows he's made a mistake.

For instance, he was more than a little bullheaded in his fight to ensure that booze is available in the pricey skyboxes at Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium during Phoenix Cardinals games. He privately cut a deal to let the fat cats drink while the average fans couldn't. When the deal was made public, it infuriated Arizona Attorney General Bob Corbin and many of Ennis' investigators, but Ennis refused to reverse his decision.

During the combat that followed, Ennis was accused of dirty tactics--like dragging an investigation so that it stretched out for the entire football season. Critics point out that the delay ensured that Ennis' skybox deal would be protected until the season was over.

The following year, Ennis took advantage of a legal loophole to use his authority as superintendent to write a special rule that had the effect of allowing booze in the skyboxes. Permanently.

All of this has angered some members of the Liquor Board, which is appointed by the governor to hear touchy liquor cases, but which has limited control over the superintendent. Some board members, including Kay McKay, the outgoing chair, support a bill now traveling through the Arizona State Legislature that would drastically curb the superintendent's power.

Ennis has suggested that his detractors are "character assassins" who hope to paint a nasty picture of him so that newly elected Governor J. Fife Symington III will not reappoint him as superintendent. Symington's aide Chris Herstam says the governor probably will decide in the next few weeks. He would not say whether Ennis will remain on his throne.

Ennis doesn't look like an iron-fisted dictator. He's in his sixties, tall but stooped. He has the look of a Fifties-era police officer in a Norman Rockwell painting, the kind of cop who would stop on a hot summer day to wipe the melted popsicle off a kid's face.

None of this is s~~urprising since Ennis served for 22 years on the Phoenix Police Department. After retiring, he served as security director for the Arizona Lottery. Upon his ouster by former governor Evan Mecham, Ennis ran a lottery-consulting business, advising other state governments on the fine points of lottery security. In 1988 he was appointed liquor czar by Governor Rose Mofford, a longtime friend.

Like Mofford, Ennis talks with an old-time Arizona twang. And just like Mofford, he has a desk flanked by an oversize Arizona flag and an oversize American flag.

That's the same kind of overblown self-importance many insiders attribute to Ennis' "hatchet man," Thomas Jonovich. He is a short, muscular Phoenix ex-cop who was brought into the Liquor Department by his old friend Ennis in 1988 for $55,963 a year, about twice the salary of his predecessor.

Jonovich is Chief of Investigations, both internal and external. Everybody calls him "The Chief." Just like his hero John Wayne, whose posters adorn his office, Jonovich wears a big badge on his hip. And a gun. "The Chief" also insists on giving investigators military-style ranks, like "sergeant" and "lieutenant" and has demanded that his squad of mostly paunchy middle-aged liquor sleuths carry guns while on duty. That can lead to problems. A while back, investigator Steve Schrimpf made a mistake with his new gun and accidentally sent a bullet whizzing into the office floor. ("Jesus, that was stupid," Schrimpf recalled when asked about it.)

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.
Terry Greene