In the spring of 2008, roughly six months after Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon coasted to re-election, he officially began dating his fundraiser.
Plenty of things about this relationship might, in a more puritanical time, have started tongues wagging. At 58, Gordon is two decades older than his paramour, 38-year-old Elissa Mullany. And while both Gordon and Mullany were separated from their spouses at the time they started dating, both have young families — and at that point, no one in either marriage had gotten around to filing for divorce. Perhaps that's one reason why, even though this was the worst-kept secret in town, the pair didn't officially confirm their relationship until last week.
But if they expected criticism over the timing, well, this isn't 1950. In these morally expansive, economically depressed times, the thing about Gordon and Mullany that has Phoenix talking isn't the relationship.
It's the money.
Since his re-election campaign wrapped up in December 2007, Gordon has paid Mullany's two-person limited liability company a total of $140,000. He's paid her through his campaign finance committee, even though she hasn't raised any money for it since the election. He's also paid her through the committee he set up to explore amending the charter and the federal political action committee he set up to lobby for the city in Washington, D.C. And while the federal PAC, at least, has been actively raising money, it's hardly enough to justify paying Mullany $8,000 a month, as the committee did throughout 2008.
Those monthly payments were scaled back this year: Mullany now earns a percentage of what she raises, not a flat fee. That's a more typical arrangement than the setup during the committee's first year of operation.
But despite the organizational changes, Mullany's total profits are still abnormally high, when considered over the life of the committee. Through its most recent filing, in July, the committee has paid Mullany close to $40 for every $100 raised.
That's much higher than the 15 to 20 percent that fundraisers typically enjoy.
And that's not all.
Around the same time they started dating, Gordon appointed Mullany to his much-hyped "Phoenix Global Trade Initiative," a partnership between City Hall and the local business community designed to market Phoenix internationally. But when the initiative folded one year after its formation, in February 2009, it had managed to do just three things.
One, it paid Mullany's company $12,000 for organizing a fundraising breakfast.
Two, it flew Mullany and three other Initiative members to Dubai.
Three, it flew Mayor Gordon to Israel — at a time when Mullany just happened to be there on her own dime.
Anyone notice a common thread here?
"In general, any time you're in a situation where a person in elected office is paying a close friend, family member, or someone they're romantically involved with, it raises serious questions about whether that person is in a position of merit," says Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.
"And certainly, with campaign money, the people who have donated to his campaign should take a pretty acute interest in anything like this."
There's good reason that Mayor Gordon's newly hired public relations guru, Jason Rose, makes a point of saying that Gordon and Mullany don't live together, and that they don't share a bank account.
According to campaign finance experts, the payments I've just detailed would likely be illegal if they did.
The law bars public officials from using campaign finance cash for their personal benefit, says Lisa Hauser, an attorney at Gammage & Burnham. That prohibition also extends to anyone who's related by "blood or marriage," Hauser says.
Crazily enough, that means the mayor couldn't pay his estranged wife from his committee, even if she did the same work. But his girlfriend is fair game.
"The only time that a payment to someone you're not related to by blood or marriage might be worth looking into is if those payments result in personal benefit to the candidate," Hauser told me. In essence, Gordon is in trouble only if the payments to Mullany have been subsidizing his lifestyle.
For the record, Rose insists that Mullany has worked hard for every penny she's earned. She doesn't just work for Gordon, he points out: her company has raised money for council members Tom Simplot and Sal DiCiccio, too. For Gordon, Rose says, she's been both raising money and working on strategy.
Term limits bar Gordon from seeking a third term as mayor, and he recently told the Arizona Republic that he'll enter the private sector when his term expires in 2011. But he wasn't always this ready to retire. For nearly a year, the mayor entertained ideas of fighting for a charter amendment that would let him stay on despite term limits, Rose acknowledges. He also, at one point, was threatened with a recall effort.
But the charter amendment plan was aborted when a poll commissioned by Gordon's campaign showed no support for the idea. The plan never really got off the ground: When I first caught wind of it, at the beginning of 2009, it took a full day just to find someone able to go on the record with a few sound bites to describe it. This was never a particularly well-organized effort — which might be one reason it fell so short.
The threatened recall, too, never came close to happening. The anti-immigration yahoos behind that plan couldn't even gather enough signatures to submit petitions to the city clerk — much less make it on the ballot. Why this would require Mullany's company to be paid a lump sum of $20,000, as was the case in May 2009, is beyond me.
The only thing that makes sense, really, is that Mullany needed the money.
Even though he's mayor of the fifth-largest city in the country and puts in a frenetic workweek, Gordon is hardly wealthy. The mayor earned just $88,000 last year — far less than most big-city mayors.
And some evidence in the public record suggests that Mullany isn't in great financial shape herself. Her estranged husband, James Mullany, works for former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson. (Johnson is also, incidentally, Gordon's regular jogging partner and the man who performed the nuptials when Gordon married his soon-to-be-ex-wife in 1993.)
Capitol One recently won a $12,180 judgment against James Mullany when he failed to pay on his credit card. The state also filed a tax lien against the Mullanys two months ago for $2,092.
And while it isn't illegal for Gordon to have helped Mullany out, as long as she did the work, it still makes some experts queasy.
Levinthal, the spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, said that the facts as described raise concerns.
"At the very least, it raises questions about the motivation of the [mayor]," he said. "Public service at its core should be about the public — not enriching the person running for office or their friends."
Rose, Gordon's PR guy, stresses that all the money involved is private — that no tax dollars have been spent on Mullany. But Levinthal says that hardly lets Gordon off the hook.
"Political campaigns are run to win office," he says. "They shouldn't be a slush fund for your buddies."
Or, for that matter, one very special buddy.
I broke the story of all these expenses last Tuesday on our Valley Fever blog not because I was dying to write it, but because Jason Rose forced my hand. Rose may be new to working for Gordon, but he's no novice when it comes to scandal. This guy knows what he's doing.
Indeed, some readers' first reaction to the story wasn't surprise at Gordon's actions — it was surprise that he'd hop into bed with Rose.
Rose, after all, isn't just a Republican who mainly works for other Republicans. He's also Sheriff Joe Arpaio's PR guy. Arpaio has been dying to find dirt on Gordon ever since the mayor courageously denounced his immigration sweeps last year. Yet now they suddenly share a public relations man?
But the move, while outwardly a head-scratcher, was actually pretty smart. For one thing, if anyone can talk Sheriff Joe out of investigating the payments to Mullany, it's Rose.
For another, Rose has already managed to trick the Arizona Republic into totally botching the story.
I'd been working on a story about Mullany and Gordon for about a week when suddenly, last Tuesday, what should pop into my in-box but an e-mail from Rose, kindly filling the competition in on information I had worked painstakingly to develop. Wow, I thought. The Republic will be all over this tomorrow; by the time I can get this in the print edition, it'll be a week old.
I needn't have worried.
In his e-mail, Rose focused on the commissions that Gordon appointed Mullany to. Yes, the two were romantically involved, he wrote. And, yes, he appointed her to three city commissions — one of them after the affair began.
"Out of an abundance of caution," Rose wrote, the mayor had asked City Attorney Gary Verburg to review the appointments. (To be fair, Rose also asked a former Arizona Supreme Court justice to review the payments to Mullany. That matter is still under review.)
When Verburg issued his opinion just one day later, there was no problem with the mayor's action. "Gordon cleared," trumpeted the Republic. Well, naturally: Gordon only asked the city attorney about the commission appointments.
But that was far from the real story.
The real story is the money: the $104,000 through the federal political action committee, the $26,000 through the campaign finance committee, the $10,000 through the committee attempting to change the charter, and, finally, the $12,000 from the trade initiative.
The Republic obviously doesn't get it, but this one comes down to the math.
The usual fee for a fundraiser is 15 percent of whatever they manage to raise. That's what Mullany's company earned from the Global Trade Initiative; that's also, I'm told, what it charges the Downtown Phoenix Partnership.
But in the past two years, Gordon has paid Mullany's company $140,000 from his three campaign committees — even as the three committees collectively raised just $267,861 during that time.
That's not 15 percent. That's 52 percent.
See what I mean about a money problem?
THE TRUTH ABOUT MARY ROSE
I can hardly blame the Republic for putting its first story about Mayor Gordon's girlfriend on the Valley & State page. Last week was a big week for news in Maricopa County — and that's putting it mildly.
Maricopa County Attorney Thomas and Sheriff Arpaio indicted Supervisor Don Stapley over allegations that he raised money to run for chairman of the National Association of Counties — yet spent it on stuff like hair implants and spa treatments. They indicted Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, alleging she obtained loans from the non-profit Chicanos Por La Causa even as she voted to give the agency county grants. Finally, they filed a direct complaint accusing Judge Gary Donahoe of bribery, hindering prosecution, and obstructing an investigation, solely because they didn't like a number of his rulings against them.
It was a wild week, to say the least.
If you want to know more about Donahoe and Stapley, check out our news blog, www.phoenixnewtimes.com/valleyfever, where my colleagues Ray Stern and Paul Rubin and I are attempting to stay on top of this stuff. But I can tell you a bit about the charges against Wilcox now. And that's because Thomas' lawyers, in typical fashion, screwed this one up.
Like their original indictment against Stapley, filed almost exactly one year ago, the case against Wilcox rests entirely on the financial disclosure forms she filed with the county clerk. But as the Stapley case was fought in court, it was revealed that the supervisors, decades ago, failed to properly mandate the forms — so Thomas was forced to charge Wilcox creatively. Wilcox faces one charge of perjury, forgery, and false swearing for each year she filed the forms without disclosing the loans.
But it's unclear whether those charges will stick. The independent prosecutor who used to be handling the Stapley case dismissed similar charges against Stapley this fall. Without the forms actually being required by law, the prosecutor felt (with good reason) that he couldn't go after Stapley for ancillary crimes like forgery and perjury.
If Thomas was looking at this clearly, he might well come to the same conclusion.
But Thomas isn't looking at this clearly. He's in this to embarrass, to score points, to throw mud against the wall — but not, surely, to ultimately win a conviction.
Nowhere is that more clear than in the final felony charges against Wilcox: 12 counts of "conflict of interest." Each count covers one vote where Wilcox voted to grant county money to Chicanos Por La Causa, or CPLC.
It's interesting to note that every last one of those votes was unanimous. It's also interesting how expansive Thomas' definition of "conflict of interest" is. All of Wilcox's votes were for CPLC's behavioral health services and minority AIDS initiative. That means, absent testimony alleging a shakedown, they were unrelated to any loans Wilcox got from CPLC's small-business-loan subsidiary.
And that may complicate the prosecutors' efforts. Arizona's conflict-of-interest law defines an interest as either "substantial" or "remote." Public officials must only abstain from a vote if they have a "substantial" interest in the contract at hand.
A "substantial" interest is, say, if the government is ordering supplies from a business you own. Or if it's hiring your wife.
A "remote" interest is, say, if you're on an unpaid board of directors. Or you own less than 3 percent of a company.
Wilcox's interest in CPLC seems remote, at best.
Indeed, the conflict-of-interest law makes an exception for "a class of persons consisting of at least 10 members which is no greater than the interest of the other members of that trade, business, occupation, profession or class of persons."
What that means: If at least 10 business owners have received loans from CPLC , Wilcox should be free to vote on CPLC grants.
So why would Thomas charge her anyway? Sometimes, with this guy, the facts just don't seem to matter.
Consider the first six charges: All refer to votes that took place in the early part of 2002. That means they happened more than seven years ago, beyond the statute of limitations.
Prosecutors can argue that the statute of limitations is "tolled" if the perpetrator leaves the state, or tries to cover up the crimes. But that would hardly apply in this case: Mary Rose Wilcox and her husband, Earl, have been in the spotlight for years. And it took me just a few minutes to find a record of the 2002 loan from Chicanos Por La Causa to Wilcox: it's been online for years, thanks to the Maricopa County Recorder's Office.
Or consider, finally, count seven of the indictment. Thomas' prosecutors charged Wilcox with voting for contracts with CPLC in March 2003. But meeting minutes show that Wilcox wasn't even present for the vote. She came late to the meeting.
How could Thomas' prosecutors not notice that before getting an indictment?
Ultimately, it's yet more evidence that Thomas has a clear conflict of interest when it comes to prosecuting the supervisors. If he's making mistakes this stupid, you know he's not soberly balancing the facts and seeking justice.
He's simply out for blood.
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