Turf War

Published online November 14, 2006, 8:45 p.m. MST
COPYRIGHT 2006, Phoenix New Times

At an Arizona Racing Commission meeting Wednesday, November 15, the state Racing Department plans to introduce a report questioning the friendship between Commission Chairman Burton Kruglick and embattled Turf Paradise owner Jeremy Simms.

The report also recommends that the commission deny Simms' application to renew Turf Paradise's permits for both horse racing and teletrack betting, citing a "pattern of disregard for the Department of Racing regulatory authority" and "inappropriate and corrupt personal and business history."

Kruglick, the former chair of the Arizona Republican Party, has been on the state's Racing Commission for 10 years. In that time, he has twice voted to renew Simms' permits, along with the majority of commission members.

But the 35-page report, written by Racing Department Director Geoffrey Gonsher, reveals that the men also have a personal friendship, one that Kruglick does not appear to have disclosed prior to being questioned by Racing staff last month.

Contacted by New Times at his home Tuesday, Kruglick said he was unaware of the report, but defended his actions.

"I know (Simms), but I know a lot of people in racing," he said. "Is that a crime?"

Kruglick has been supportive of Turf Paradise in the past, even though it's been the subject of much Racing Department attention since Simms was first licensed to oversee it in May 2000.

Many of the problems stem from Simms' actions in California, which included offering a $100,000 "loan" to a California Coastal Commissioner in exchange for some help with a swimming pool permit. In his original Arizona application, Simms denied that the loan was a bribe. But the department alleged that he'd testified otherwise to a grand jury in 1992.

In 2003, Kruglick was the pivotal vote in a 3-2 decision to renew Simms' permit, even though the Racing Department argued against it. And in 2002, long after the California allegations surfaced, Kruglick told the Arizona Republic that Simms was an "asset to the community."

The report supplies a little background, concluding that the friendship gives "an impression of impropriety."

"Simms acknowledged that Chairman Kruglick is a friend, that he and Chairman Kruglick serve on a local charity board, that he and Chairman Kruglick have dinner together, that he has hosted Chairman Kruglick at his table at Del Mar, and that he has invited Chairman Kruglick to his home for social events," the report says. "A subsequent interview with Chairman Kruglick confirmed these facts."

Gonsher declined comment, citing the pending meeting. Simms' spokesman, Vince Francia, did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

The report notes that no one is accused of wrongdoing.

"To be clear, there is no evidence that Simms has attempted to influence Chairman Kruglick through his friendship and social relationships," it says. "Nevertheless the issue of this relationship is potentially significant to the Racing Department because of the Department of Gaming's finding of a 'troubling pattern of . . . attempts to take advantage of financial situations and relationships with government authorities . . .'" (See "Trouble in Paradise," The Bird, Stephen Lemons, October 19.)

Kruglick is 81 years old — old enough for New Times columnist Tom Fitzpatrick to have called him "the aging hyena of Arizona politics" a full 26 years ago. He ran the state GOP from 1985 to 1991; he also made an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Phoenix, running against Terry Goddard, in 1989.

Kruglick confirmed that he and Simms are friends, and that they serve together on the board for Kivel Manor Inc., which runs the Kivel Campus of Care nursing homes. "We don't socialize regularly," he says. He also said they have no business relationships and have never done anything improper.

The report outlines seven additional reasons to deny Simms' renewal application, including "placing horsemen, racehorses, jockeys, other licensees and Department employees at physical risk," and failing to comply with state and local regulations.

Among other things, Turf Paradise has drawn attention from City of Phoenix building inspectors, who found structures built without a permit, according to records. The report also alleges that a horse died in April after the race track "failed to monitor and secure a security gate." (According to the report, the horse entered the city streets and was killed after running into a traffic signal pole.)

The report also suggests that Simms may have been unusually reticent when it comes to his ties to the former GOP leader.

The report includes the transcript of an interview between Racing officials, Simms, and Simms' lawyers.

According to the transcript, the lawyers interrupted three times to stop questions about the relationship between Kruglick and Simms. It was only after those interruptions, Gonsher's report notes, that Simms' lawyer "allowed Simms to respond to some questions about Kruglick that revealed the personal relationship noted above."

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske