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Route: The Story of a Lawyer's Rise

Five years ago Maricopa County residents momentarily set aside their hatred of taxes to finance a spectacular network of freeways. Terminally disgusted with the Valley's podunk street system, voters approved a half-cent sales tax intended to raise $3 billion with which to build the 231- mile system.

And thereby made the Arizona Department of Transportation, which handles those revenues, the fattest goose in state government.

This fact was not lost on anyone, least of all the owners of large land holdings in the freeway corridors. Within months of starting work on its huge new freeway system, ADOT began hemorrhaging money.

Put simply, the state--and taxpayers--are getting killed in condemnation lawsuits over land for the new roads, while landowners benefit from a long tradition of legislation and case law sympathetic to private property. The problem is big enough, say agency officials, that essential stretches of the freeway system are now uncertain to be completed.

"We're spending twice what we'd expected on land acquisition," laments Charles Miller, director of ADOT. "Something has to be done to make this a more equitable system."

Charlie Miller's latest effort to solve the dilemma, however, bares the agency's plump thigh to yet another plucking--this time from one of its own consultants. Acting on the recommendation of granddaddy lobbyist Jack DeBolske, executive director of the Arizona League of Cities and Towns, Miller recently gave two lucrative contracts to Bill Stephens, a onetime Democratic party golden boy and long-time DeBolske crony, to help the state acquire land.

In doing so, Miller by-passed usual ADOT hiring procedures and his own top assistants, who've been scrambling to assemble an effective defense strategy against the agency's huge losses in condemnation court. He authorized his agency to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars from land- acquisition funds to Stephens, whose law firm does not even list eminent domain law (the focus of condemnation suits) among its specialties.

Stephens' contract for legal services--services that usually are handled in-house by ADOT's team of lawyers from the Attorney General's Office--calls for him to be paid on an hourly basis and does not contain a cap on the amount of hours he can charge. The second contract, which was hastily canceled last month shortly after New Times' inquiries, called for Stephens to receive $450,000 in ADOT funds to set up a computerized database to aid him in the pursuit of his efforts.

Miller says he hired Stephens "based on his expertise and success in this area" and hopes Stephens will "plow new ground" in condemnation law, saving the taxpayers millions of dollars in the process.

"As I understand it, he's had good success using expert witnesses in this area," Miller says.

Bill Stephens' personal experience litigating condemnation cases before juries--where ADOT has been suffering its main damage--is limited to one lawsuit in the past decade. Stephens says that he has supervised the work of younger lawyers who handled condemnation cases in the past, and that those cases "all turned out fairly well." Phoenix attorney Bob Kerrick, who represents numerous landowners in condemnation suits, says that, in his opinion, the Stephens-ADOT agreement is "clearly a good ol' boy contract."

Stephens, a former legislator, denies he got his ADOT contracts through political connections, saying, "[Attorney General] Bob Corbin is a Republican. [Corbin aide] Steve Twist is a Republican. I don't know what the politics of Charlie or Jack are. I doubt Jack would be party to such a deal. As far as my political power goes, that's an illusion, too. I'm no longer involved in politics."

As to whether he thinks he has the expertise for the ADOT work, Stephens, who has built his law practice around well-paying government contracts, downplays his limited experience in condemnation law. "There's nothing terribly unique about condemnation law," Stephens says, citing his successful history of water-rights disputes. "I would characterize our main qualification as the experience of this law firm in handling complex and fairly novel legal questions."

Meanwhile, the state's top condemnation lawyers pricked up their ears as word of Stephens' deal hit the streets; their reaction is one of hungry anticipation. "How are they going to use him?" Kerrick wants to know. "Are they going to send him up against someone who doesn't know what they are doing, or against one of us?" In Kerrick's opinion, Stephens has been less than a raging success in condemnation cases. "He's gotten his brains beat out," says Kerrick.

Stephens contends that his firm successfully represented the city of Phoenix in the largest water-company condemnation case in state history and says, "Collectively, our firm has handled these matters quite successfully."

Court records suggest otherwise.

CHARLIE MILLER IS a frustrated man. Since the 1985 freeway vote, his agency has spent more than $400 million just to buy land. The toughest part of the problem, he claims, is that Arizona's condemnation law and past court decisions hamstring ADOT efforts to strike a fair bargain on behalf of the taxpayers.

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Kathleen Stanton