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STATON V. WOODSTHE MUD MAY FLY, BUT IT SURE DON'T STICK

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Widger, who earlier had targeted Grant Woods in his complaints, is now reluctant to talk. "My lawyer doesn't want me talking about it because it's all in court now," Widger says, referring to a lawsuit he has filed against Charles Wahlheim, the person who introduced him to Joe Woods, and Zion Bank, which loaned him the investment capital. Neither Woods is a defendant, he acknowledges, but he hints they may be named later.

Far from inducing Widger or his friends to invest, Joe Woods was approached by Widger, says Ross, who was married to Grant Woods at the time and a partner in his law firm. At the urging of Mesa city leaders, Joe Woods spearheaded efforts to revive downtown Mesa with the construction of new office space and a luxury hotel. He intended to finance the development with reduced-interest loans backed by Industrial Development Authority bonds, an accepted way of attracting investment to decaying urban areas.

Widger sought to buy the managing interest in the partnership but lacked the cash to match his ambition. Consequently, he solicited other investors to come up with the half-million dollar purchase price.

In return, the partnership signed promissory notes agreeing to pay interest to these small investors. Despite this help, Widger was unable to raise more than half the money he'd promised. Compounding the problem, he made other investments which disqualified him as a below-market borrower under the IDA's strict regulations. The people who supposedly "squeezed out" Widger and his friends were new investors brought in to salvage the partnership's eligibility for the IDA funding, Ross explains.

Widger was removed from the partnership when he failed to complete his purchase. As in many urban- redevelopment stories, the project didn't attract the hoped-for traffic and ran into financial problems. Following Widger's press conference, Joe Woods paid the small investors their overdue interest from his own pocket, and asked where they had gotten their information blaming his son for the mess. "They told me they got their information from Marion Widger and did not research it before they wrote letters of complaint," Joe Woods says.

As tenuous as the Widger allegation seems, it requires an even bigger stretch to connect Woods with convicted savings-and-loan pirate Mario Renda, says James Hart, Woods' former law partner. "Grant never had any involvement with Mario Renda," Hart says.

As with the office project, Woods' father Joe was beseeched by city officials to build a hotel in downtown Mesa after the original developer fell out. The hotel did not draw visitors as intended, however, and ran into financial difficulty within a year of opening in 1984. In 1985 the mortgage holder, Western Savings & Loan, insisted that Joe Woods and co-owner Dave Schuff find a successful hotelier to buy a managing interest in the partnership and make the property profitable, Hart says.

Joe Woods found an interested group of English buyers, while Schuff introduced Western Savings to a San Diego hotel developer named Carroll Davis, who also was interested, Hart says.

"Davis' financial backing came from Mario Renda," Hart explains. "Western Savings performed background checks on both prospective buyers and decided to accept Davis' offer."

Again, what does this have to do with Grant Woods? "He had no involvement at all," says Hart, who acted as legal counsel to Joe Woods after Davis left town. "Grant came in as a partner much after Renda and Davis were gone, along with other investors Woods and Schuff rounded up to try and save the project," Hart says. "Joe and Dave pumped lots of their own money into it trying to keep it afloat."

Renda's name did not even surface until the deal was done, Joe Woods says. "We didn't investigate Davis because it was Western's loan and Western's idea to find another investor. I personally asked Western to do the `due diligence' [research]," he explains.

"The bank did run a credit check on Renda, and all that turned up was one lawsuit," according to a Western source who asked to remain anonymous. "I'm sure there was no extensive background check done on Renda. It would have been highly unusual to have done a complete background check," the source noted.

Banking-industry trade journals had begun publishing investigative pieces about Renda's activities as early as 1983, yet Western Savings loan officers approved him as a buyer. Neither Gary Driggs, bank president at the time, nor the bank's legal counsel returned phone calls from New Times.

Renda himself didn't even come to Mesa to sign the purchase papers; he sent his attorney to sign for him, Hart notes. After Davis took over the hotel, he convinced Western he needed an additional $1.5 million to make improvements, bringing the total mortgage to $19 million.

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Kathleen Stanton