Longform

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf Man?

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There was no way he could run for reelection, Augherton says.

"He had completed his personal destruction of me as the mayor, and to a great extent, of me as a resident of the town."

Sorchych praises Augherton as gifted and articulate, but disingenuous. "How long can you be a lobbyist and stay honest?" he asks.

The lowest blow: Like many other officials, Sorchych painted Augherton as "pro-development."

"What's the worst thing they can say about you in Cave Creek?" Augherton asks. "Not that you're the town rapist, not that you're a polygamist, not that you're a debtor or an IRS evader, but God forbid if you are a friend of the developer. Then you are the lowest level of hell."


And even worse? That you didn't support the acquisition of Spur Cross Ranch.

During Tom Augherton's time in office, the town of Cave Creek annexed Spur Cross Ranch -- 2,250 acres of pristine Sonoran desert on the northern end of the town. Abutting the Tonto National Forest, the land is home to endangered wildlife, Native American ruins and one of the last year-round creeks in Maricopa County.

It was an aggressive move, one done to try to prevent development of the land by its owners, Great American Life Insurance in Cincinnati and local businessman Herb Dreiszesun. The annexation tied the land up in litigation for some time, but ultimately, land trades were rejected, and the state and county decided to buy the land outright and make it a park.

Augherton used his government contacts to lobby for money. The appropriation of a total of $15 million -- between the state and county -- was celebrated as a major coup for Governor Jane Dee Hull.

But there was just one problem: Even in the face of conflicting appraisals, the landowners wanted more money. They got it, to the tune of $6.3 million, thanks to Cave Creek's first-ever property tax, passed by the people last year. And thanks to Don Sorchych, who hyped the election with the kind of vigor usually reserved by the national press for Arizona Senator John McCain.

Sorchych sees himself as the town watchdog, but he was the town cheerleader in this case.

Shortly after the $15 million deal was made, then-Cave Creek town attorney Tom Irvine resigned his position -- another name to check off of Sorchych's enemies list, for various decisions Irvine made (including some having to do with Sorchych's disputes with neighbors) that the publisher didn't like. The town hired a lawyer named Gary Birnbaum to replace Irvine. Birnbaum was an interesting choice. For one thing, one of his associates, Fredda Bisman, had recently left her post as Scottsdale's city attorney, amidst allegations she violated open meeting laws -- hardly a ringing endorsement for a town attorney candidate.

And Birnbaum had some baggage of his own. Years before, Birnbaum had worked for savings and loan magnate Charlie Keating and had been charged by federal regulators with setting up sham land sales. Birnbaum denied this, but his law firm settled the case for more than $5 million.

Keating's career, coincidentally, had been launched by Carl Lindner, the owner of Great American Life Insurance.

This coincidence was too close for comfort for some Cave Creekers. Gary Schmitt, a local activist, brought the information to Sorchych's attention, but the publisher, usually an attack dog on disclosing conflicts, says he refused to print it because Schmitt was just out to get Birnbaum.

And when Augherton approached the town council to raise concerns about the hiring, Sorchych skewered him.

Then there's the comment current Mayor Vince Francia made recently, in a conversation about Sorchych.

"In the last two years, most of our conversations had to do with Spur Cross," Francia acknowledges -- and then the conversation gets interesting. "Many people do not know, but Mr. Sorchych played his part, too, not only via his newspaper in supporting the citizenry in trying to preserve Spur Cross, but Mr. Sorchych had a contact in Cincinnati at the Great American Insurance Company, and it was very key as we proceeded through the negotiations to really have an understanding of what Cincinnati was thinking, because they are the ones that owned 70 percent of Spur Cross. Mr. Sorchych made that information available to me so that we could plan."

Available? Like, by putting it in the paper? Oh no, Francia says -- this was often between the two of them. (Sorchych confirms this.)

Francia says, "That information was very valuable to know. Were they happy, unhappy? Were they getting impatient? What were they really looking for?"

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.