Even in Arizona, you do not normally get your aspirants for high public office on a grand-theft-auto rap. But last week, U.S. Senate front-runner Dick Mahoney was explaining to me how he had not stolen another man's truck. Startled into accounting for his behavior, Mahoney put his explanation together slowly, like the clumsily coagulating words of Texas Ranger outfielder Jose Canseco recounting how a routine pop fly bounced off his head and into the stands.

On the campaign trail, Dick Mahoney looks like a walking signboard for a blackthorn shillelagh or maybe a pub off of Dublin's Grafton Street. He possesses Gaelic wit, obvious intelligence, the gift for blarney, a small, upturned beezer and an Irishman's palpable lust for political advancement which, in Mahoney's particular case, is positively Shakespearean in its grandeur and sweep.

As he has in the past, Mahoney is running for office by complaining about corruption in politics and the evil of campaign contributions from special interests. This ethical high ground is not stage whispering with Mahoney; it is his raison d'àtre.

Critics scoff, claiming that Mahoney's position is naive enough to qualify for Barney the Dinosaur's school of electoral reform; however, to Mahoney's credit, he has rejected all PAC contributions. Furthermore, he has countless campaign-finance proposals--all brilliant, thank you very much--he'd like to see enacted for the betterment of the Republic.

Mahoney's twin planks consist of the holier-than-thou and smarter-than-you platform. Historically, this is a very tough act to pull off.

The shining Eagle Scout bit got Jesus stapled to pine boards. And as far as being brighter than the competition, look what it did for the popularity of Don King and Howard Cosell. On top of these inherent dangers, a politician who stakes out the self-righteous turf is forced to talk the talk and walk the walk. You cannot climb down from the pulpit and drive off in a stolen truck.

@body:In 1990, Mahoney challenged the incumbent secretary of state, Jim Shumway, in the Democratic primary. Billy Shields is a firefighter who, at the time, owned a 71 Chevy pickup.

Contacted about the details of his truck's entanglement with Mahoney, Shields was reluctant to talk. He agreed only to confirm particulars already leaked by Mahoney loyalists.

Mahoney, says Shields, wanted to borrow the truck in 1990 to put up campaign signs. But the two never talked, simply missing each other on the phone. In any event, Shields would not have lent Mahoney the truck. He'd spent $1,500 to rebuild the engine block, and at the time Mahoney wanted to borrow the truck, there was a leak in the radiator. If you drove the truck without constantly adding water, you'd burn up the engine.

You can imagine Shields' shock when he returned home and found his truck missing.

Billy's wife told him Mahoney had come by the house and grabbed the truck, after assuring her that he had her husband's permission.

Soon enough, Mahoney destroyed the engine in the 71 Chevy. He dumped the wreck on a shoulder of I-17.

Shields is a square guy and does not shoot Mahoney between his smiling Irish eyes. In fact, he even waits until after Mahoney wins the election to press Dick for the money.

Mahoney pleads poverty, according to Shields. Bill tells Dick he'll discount the cost of the $1,500 engine to $600 because the rebuilt was two years old when the politician drove off with the truck.

Even so, Mahoney avows that he cannot pay. He has so many campaign debts, claims the new secretary of state, that it will be another two years before he can pay back the $600.

Billy Shields resigned himself to the notion that his dealings with Dick Mahoney would have to be chalked up to a life lesson. He agreed to wait two years for his money. Today, nearly three years later, he has not seen a dime from Mahoney.

What's more, Mahoney now tells me there is no debt.
Here's how it stacks up.
Dick Mahoney needed something someone else had. So he took it.

Mahoney lied to Billy Shields' wife. He stole the truck. He drove the Chevy into the ground, overheated it, ignored the dashboard warning lights and welded the engine shut. Instead of doing the correct thing and having the truck towed to a garage (or at least back to the Shields residence), he abandoned the pickup on the freeway. He neglected to tell Billy, who owned the truck, or Billy's wife, from whom he swiped the truck, that anything was wrong. Then, for the next three years, Mahoney simply forgave himself the debt he owed after ruining another man's truck.

I call this a remarkable list of high misdemeanors and low personal felonies from a candidate who runs his campaigns preaching about financial ethics, public morality and the need for reform.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey