The Dirty Truth about "Clean" Elections

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• En route to winning his seat in Mesa, Republican Cecil Ash spent $323 on Segway ramps and $384 for a video camera.

• On the final day of a hotly contested Republican primary in north Phoenix, now-state Representative Carl Seel lavished $405 on a GPS unit for his car — along with a two-year service plan.

• Tempe Democrat Ed Ableser drew scorn in a previous run, in 2006, for spending $287 to rent a "frozen drink machine" from Cactus Rita. But his report in 2008 shows the lesson went unlearned — it's a near-endless list of foodstuffs. Blessed with $41,517, Ableser managed to spend $886 on "staff dinners" and food for himself, dining everywhere from RA Sushi to House of Tricks. At one point, Ableser even charged his campaign $4 for a cup of coffee at Xtreme Bean Coffee Company.

Some candidates also appear to have used public funds to enrich their own business interests. Republican Andre Campos was given $45,841 in public funds for his unsuccessful Senate bid. He spent more than half of it, $23,155, at a firm called Image Design Communications.

The firm's sole owner? Andre Campos himself — a guy who lists his principal business as a firm called Spanky Entertainment Marketing. Yep, Campos apparently took a break from marketing bars and clubs to obtain public funding to market himself. (Campos didn't return calls for comment.)

John Fillmore, a Republican running for state representative in Apache Junction, didn't even bother writing a check to a company he owned. Instead, he simply paid himself $2,861 in "petty cash/miscellaneous." Fillmore says he used the cash to avoid his bank's "exorbitant" checking fees.

Fillmore also paid $17,350 to Mesa attorney Daniel Washburn for "communications," according to records. Washburn was "helping me a lot, helping me orchestrate polling places throughout the district," Fillmore says. Would that help have cost so much if he weren't running with a slush fund, courtesy of the taxpayers? Fillmore isn't sure.

"Yeah, it's a lot of money, but it also isn't," he says. "You try to spend where you can and get some good out of it. You don't know if you are or not. You just kind of give it your best shot, you know?"

Then there's Daniel Veres, a Republican running in South Phoenix. He paid a former radio DJ $21,558 for "get out the vote" efforts and "communication" — including, at one point, $540 to set up a MySpace page.

Veres says he's happy with his consultant's efforts, but he didn't exactly get much bang for his buck. His MySpace page drew just 48 friends.

Jackie Thrasher is just the kind of candidate the Clean Elections system was designed to help. The Glendale mom was a band teacher at Lookout Mountain Elementary, a pragmatic Democrat who knew about life beyond politics but didn't have the money or wealthy contacts necessary to finance a campaign.

So when Thrasher ran for office in 2006, she ran clean. Without Clean Elections, Thrasher would have spent months courting donors and raising money. With it, the mom and teacher took just weeks to qualify for the $65,699 she eventually received to finance her campaign.

Thrasher is still grateful for the support. But last fall, when she was up for re-election, she saw the dark side of Clean Elections. Locked in a tight campaign with the small business owner she'd unseated just two years before, Thrasher was forced to stand by as her opponents gamed the very system that was supposed to prevent corruption.

In 2008, both Thrasher and her opponent, Republican Doug Quelland, ran as clean candidates. But the Clean Elections Commission recently examined allegations that Quelland illegally exceeded spending limits in his narrow victory.

According to testimony at the commission's meeting last December, Quelland hired a company called Intermedia to do some consulting and build a Web site. Intermedia's owner, Larry Davis, says the candidate paid him $11,000, plus free rent in a strip mall Quelland owned.

Quelland never reported that as a campaign expense. At the commission meeting, his lawyer argued that the work performed by Davis was merely a benefit to Quelland's business, a coffee shop, not the campaign. He agreed that the initial contract did call for campaign work, but that Quelland wasn't happy with Davis' services and fired him.

Davis angrily disputed that.

"[I]f you go [to] Mr. Quelland's bank and subpoena his records, you will have $11,000 in payments to my firm," he said. "Again, not for passing out fliers [for the coffee shop]. My vendors will also come in here and tell you as well that they worked with our firm well past March 10 to create his red [campaign] 'Q' T-shirts, to create his fliers . . .

"And I will be glad to bring folks in here at any time to tell you that we were out there pounding those signs with Mr. Quelland every day of the week."

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske