James Wikert, SCA Donor, Had Ties to Steve Ellman, Phoenix Coyotes

It was one of the weirdest mysteries in yesterday's revelatory SCA filing, which revealed the donors behind the money that financed an attack ad on Sheriff Joe Arpaio's opponent.

Why the heck would a bunch of out-of-town businessmen be willing to write massive checks to a secret committee started by a sheriff's deputy?

We still can't answer that question as well as we'd like. Why, for example, would tickets.com founder Tom Gimple care about the reputation of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office or the reelection of Sheriff Joe Arpaio? We've searched Gimple's business connections, and damned if we can figure out why the sheriff was worth $25,000 to him. (Gimple, suffice to say, hasn't returned our call.) We have the same questions about Freeport McMoran director B.M. Rankin, who (best we can tell), is an elderly rich dude in Dallas. Again, where's the connection?

But the good news is, we can explain why James Wikert, another rich Dallas guy, might want to pony up $30,000.

Wikert is involved with real estate and aviation, owning a dozen companies in Texas. No clear tie there.

But, as we reported yesterday, the first guy to make a big contribution to the SCA fund was developer Steve Ellman. Ellman is a longtime friend of Arpaio's -- newspaper reports have the two men dining together and Ellman roasting the sheriff at his 70th birthday party. Ellman was apparently such a true believer, he volunteered his time with the sheriff's posse.

And Ellman has clear ties to Wikert.

Ellman, with Jerry Moyes, owns a majority stake in the Phoenix Coyotes franchise. Court records related to the team's recent bankruptcy filing show that the duo had sold off a one percent interest to Wikert, to the tune of about $1 million. Records also show that Wikert and Ellman serve on a non-profit board together that advocates for better relations with Cuba.

Do these two know each other? To quote our favorite former Alaska governor, you betcha. Did Ellman ask Wikert to contribute to the fund? We can't say for sure (he's referring calls to his lawyer, and his lawyer is oh-so-conveniently out of the country), but it's the only thing that makes sense.

Incidentally, beyond his ties to Arpaio, Ellman has a business relationship with the man long thought to be the power behind the sheriff's increasingly senile throne, Deputy Chief David Hendershott. Records show that Ellman's Westgate City Center development opened in Glendale just a few months before Ellman made his donation to the SCA. Among its tenants? A pizza joint, Paparone's, half-owned by Hendershott's wife, Anna, according to records from the state liquor department.

We're told Paparone's has since closed. But that, coupled with this old photo we were able to dig up from 2006, make it pretty clear that the Hendershotts had ongoing business dealings with Ellman.

Ellman's lawyer said in a prepared statement yesterday that Ellman had "no dealings" with the guy officially running the fund, Sheriff's Captain Joel Fox. So we're asking this: Was it Arpaio's deputy chief, Hendershott, who recruited Ellman for donations?

As one of our astute readers recently pointed out, Hendershott tried to peddle the same dirt that showed up in the SCA-financed ads to another politician in July 2008. Was the SCA fund his backup plan when there were no takers? We're waiting for Chief Hendershott to give us a buzz and explain himself.

Meantime, if anyone's got any info about who recruited James Liautaud, B.M. Rankin, and Tom Gimple into this tawdry affair, we really hope they give us a call. Nearly a year after the nasty ads hit the airwaves and rocked the 2007 sheriff's race, the public could use some answers.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske