Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio has promised to be a "forceful voice" in the ongoing controversy over the proposed extension of the Loop 202 freeway.
But DiCiccio should think twice about opening his mouth on this one. Records obtained by New Times show that DiCiccio appears to have a conflict of interest on the issue: His real estate development company currently has a lease on 150 tribal-owned acres in the area — and those acres would clearly increase in value with improved freeway access, should the extension become reality.
Currently, the Loop 202 freeway stops at Pecos Road, in an area that borders Chandler, the Ahwatukee neighborhood of Phoenix, and the Gila River Indian Community.
ADOT hopes to extend the freeway west along Pecos Road, then head north to connect it to I-10. That route has generated intense neighborhood opposition, leading to talk of an alternative through the Gila River reservation.
But as long as the extension is completed, DiCiccio's business holdings would likely benefit — regardless of which route is ultimately chosen.
On DiCiccio's own financial disclosure forms, which are filed with the Phoenix city clerk although not posted online, the councilman noted that his development company holds a lease on two 75-acre parcels on the Gila River Indian reservation.
One of the parcels is located at 40th Street and Pecos — an area adjacent to where any freeway extension would have to begin. The other, which DiCiccio describes in his form only as being located off Highway 347, could also potentially see its value enhanced by the extension, although the details are less clear.
Arizona law bars public officials like DiCiccio from voting on or "participating in any manner" in transactions where they have a substantial interest.
The record clearly indicates that DiCiccio has been participating in the process, if not, per se, a "transaction." Whether he's violated the law is, at this point, only a question.
Neither DiCiccio nor his staff responded to repeated requests for comment Thursday. The councilman is up for re-election and faces challenger Dana Marie Kennedy on November 3; early voting is already under way.
At a candidate's debate sponsored by the Ahwatukee Foothills News, DiCiccio actually boasted about his involvement on the freeway project. He told the audience that he was "the first person" to set up a meeting with the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Maricopa Association of Governments, and Congressmen Harry Mitchell and Ed Pastor to discuss the freeway. (A video of his remarks is online here.) It's not clear if he disclosed his financial interest to those officials.
DiCiccio's City Council district stretches from Arcadia to Ahwatukee — and most of Ahwatukee opposes the long-stalled extension because the route would rip right through the quiet residential neighborhood. At least 250 homes would be destroyed.
But at a neighborhood meeting in June, the then-newly appointed councilman announced, in essence, that the extension was coming and the neighborhood better get used to the idea. That position contrasted starkly to the neighborhood's former representative on the City Council, Greg Stanton, who'd worked to stop the project.
In a candidates' debate more recently, DiCiccio claimed to oppose the freeway. But activists are suspicious: DiCiccio mostly seems intent on developing a "unified" voice for the neighborhood, they say. And that might actually help move the much-delayed project forward.
Last month, in fact, DiCiccio appointed a citizens committee to work on the issue, urging the neighborhood to "reach consensus" on a location for the extension. The committee met for just a few weeks before announcing that it supports building the freeway through the Gila River Indian Community.
The Gila River land, of course, is where DiCiccio's company holds its leases. Both leases appear to be on vacant lots that, with freeway access, would be ripe for development.
Tribal records show that even as DiCiccio sits on the Phoenix City Council, he's been working, along with attorney Paul Gilbert, to develop a use for the property with the Gila River community. Tribal spokeswoman Alia Maisonet did not return calls for comment Thursday.
DiCiccio is the sole owner of his company, Zenith Development of Arizona. On the Gila River project, Zenith is working in partnership with local businessmen Gary Davidson and William Levine. Levine, who sold his billboard company for $8.3 billion in 1999, has been on the Forbes magazine list of the country's richest people. (He's also married to Barry Goldwater's widow, Susan.)
DiCiccio has lived in Ahwatukee for 23 years. He represented the neighborhood on the city council for six years before leaving office in 2000 to run for Congress.
DiCiccio lost, and founded Zenith Development three years later. Zenith formed its partnership with Levine and Davidson in 2005, according to state records.
Their joint venture, LDR-Zenith, obtained leases on the two 75-acre parcels in December 2007 and January 2008, according to DiCiccio's disclosure forms.
Just one year later, the area's longtime councilman, Stanton, announced he was resigning — and DiCiccio mounted an intense campaign to be appointed as his replacement. He was voted in, and almost immediately began campaigning to be elected to a four-year term.
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When he failed to gain a plurality in the September primary, DiCiccio was forced to face challenger Dana Marie Kennedy in the run-off election on November 3.
In a recent debate, DiCiccio stressed his connections to Ahwatukee.
"I live out here," he said. "I am impacted by these same decisions I'm involved in."
He didn't mention his company's lease.