Lax Phoenix Recordkeeping Allows City Officials to Enjoy Lavish Off-the-Book Perks

As Phoenix residents sacrificed during one of the harshest budget years in the city's history — receiving fewer municipal services and paying a new food tax — certain city officials continued to enjoy lavish perks.

Tickets to a luxury suite to watch big-name performers and Phoenix Suns playoff games are among the advantages at least a few city leaders have enjoyed.

The Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau, funded in part by taxpayers, paid for Peggy Neely, who just resigned her councilwoman post to launch a campaign for mayor, to fly to Hawaii on a six-night, seven-day junket to woo a youth-soccer tournament that didn't need wooing.

Phoenix taxpayers picked up the tab for Neely's meals, car rental, and posh accommodations on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu.

City Manager David Cavazos went to four Suns playoff games in a city-owned suite in US Airways Center (one in 2010 and three in 2006). He also sat in the suite for at least 12 other events, according to city records.

Phoenix owns the arena, as well as one of its 12-seat suites — which, the city says, is to be used for hosting potential business prospects, visiting dignitaries, or youth groups.

Cavazos tells New Times he can't recall whether he attended the games he attended: "If [the record] says I was there, then I was there, but I don't remember."

Former Councilman Greg Stanton, another mayoral candidate, says he never took such perks.

"The city should sell back the tickets to bring in much-needed revenue," Stanton says, "and eliminate a culture of entitlement."

Selling the suite tickets to other organizations is an option that would put money back in the city's pocket. And given that city officials are pinching pennies to overcome a $59 million budget shortfall, why wouldn't they seize the opportunity to raise extra revenue?

In the past five years, the city has sold the suite only 35 times, bringing in $77,000.

Cavazos says the last four times he has accepted tickets to the suite, he's written a $100 check each time to offset the cost of his attendance. He says the money went to Phoenix Economic Partners, a not-for-profit organization that foots the bill for catering the suite.

When asked about records of those checks, he says he isn't sure whether he wrote any checks, but he thinks he might have.

Alison Herring, whom Cavazos says is the keeper of such records in the Phoenix Community and Economic Development Department, has not returned repeated calls from New Times.

Councilman Claude Mattox, also a mayoral candidate, attended at least three rock concerts at US Airways Center: Bob Seger and The Who in 2007 and Billy Joel/Elton John in 2009.

Though he got the tickets for the Joel/John concert through the city, Mattox says, he paid for them out of his own pocket. He also says he didn't sit in the city's suite for that show.

City records, however, put him in the luxury box for that performance, along with former economic development director Don Maxwell and an unnamed business prospect from Washington, D.C.

As they were with Cavazos, details are sketchy regarding Mattox's use of the suite.

Mattox says he's been to so many concerts over the years that he can't remember whether he attended or sat in the suite for performances by Eric Clapton, The Police, and The Eagles. And, if he was there, he says he can't remember if he paid his own way.

Records that would answer such questions should be readily available from the Community and Economic Development Department, which city policy dictates is responsible for managing the use of the suite.

But New Times discovered that — for at least five years — the department has violated city policy by releasing tickets to the suite without first getting the names, business affiliations, and job titles of suite guests.

The shoddy recordkeeping leaves the suite open to abuse, and allows elected officials to attend events and keep their names off the books (Mattox's name was left off city records at least twice), which raises the question: Is what New Times found for this article just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the pricey perk for city officials?

The fact that council members make more than the average Phoenix resident and can afford tickets on their own apparently doesn't enter into the thinking of the likes of Cavazos and Mattox. Council members make $61,610 a year, while Cavazos makes $236,000 annually.

Former Councilwoman Neely says she attended one US Airways Center event, but her name also is absent from the records provided New Times.

As for her nearly $4,000 trip to Hawaii, Neely defends it, saying it resulted in Phoenix's landing the 2012 U.S. Youth Soccer regional tournament. She says it will mean 4,000 hotel room nights for each day of the weeklong tournament.

"That's huge," she tells New Times. "We were successful. It was just one of those things that happened to be in Hawaii that year. We believe it was the best thing to do."

Travel logs show that the Convention and Visitors Bureau picked up the tab for Neely to fly to Hawaii from June 14 to June 20, 2008, to recruit the tournament — at the same time the city was sliding into a $67 million budget deficit.

Hard to imagine that Phoenix wouldn't attract soccer tournaments without Neely's trip, given that voters spent nearly $25 million for the Reach 11 Sports Complex. The 77-acre soccer facility, with 20 lighted soccer fields and 2,200 parking spaces, is a major selling point.

Also, Tom Mendoth, U.S. Youth Soccer Region IV Tournament coordinator, says political courting has nothing to do with a city's landing the next regional tournament.

Cities that want to host the event must submit bids and offer presentations to the tournament's board, Mendoth says. "There's no political aspect to this at all," he adds.

Neely stayed at the Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort on Waikiki Beach.

A resort official told New Times that she stayed in a Banyan Ocean suite, a room that presently is going for $2,800 a night. But Eric Berger, the resort's general manager, apparently gave Neely a special rate of $220 a night.

She also enjoyed some pricey meals — $46 king crab legs, a single dinner with a tab of $68.42 after tax and tip. Another dinner, this one at the Cheesecake Factory, ended up at $46.63. She also dined on a $17 turkey sandwich, a $16 breakfast wrap, and $14 waffles in the hotel.

New Times requested information from the Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau on April 1 to find out whether it has paid for similar getaways for other public officials. No records have yet been provided.

Cavazos says he doesn't see a problem with public officials using the US Airways Center luxury box two or three times a year.

"If they're in there every week, then obviously it's a problem," he says.

It's interesting to note that while Cavazos was deputy city manager and attended the 2006 Suns playoffs games, he did so after he was disciplined for abusing city travel funds. Among his improprieties was spending thousands of dollars on business-class airfare on overseas trips, instead of flying coach.

Cavazos spent more than $8,300 of city money on roundtrip business-class airfare to England, France, and Holland in 2002. Then-Governor Janet Napolitano flew coach roundtrip and spent $567.50 of state money for one leg of the same trip. If she had attended the entire trip, presumably the cost would have been about $1,700.

A 2006 disciplinary letter to Cavazos, quoted in the Arizona Republic, noted that he "showed a disregard for [his] fiduciary responsibilities as a management representative" and that he "set the tone that allowed [his] subordinate staff to also inappropriately use city funds."

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo