Taken to the Cleaners

Eleven years ago, after her father suffered a stroke, a middle-aged housewife and mother named Charlotte Walton suddenly found herself at the helm of Maroney's, the family dry-cleaning and laundry business.

Walton put in long hours at Maroney's, which has two locations in Phoenix. As company president, she rarely took vacations, and often awoke at 4 a.m. to open one of the shops. She stayed at the office until late at night, working on books, ordering supplies, figuring out how to maximize benefits for her 100 employees, 80 percent of whom are minorities.

At first, Walton's work ethic served her well. Under her leadership, Maroney's maintained its net worth of about $1 million.

But that began to change five years ago, when Walton learned that all the hard work and honesty in the world are no match against people who have lots of money and lots of friends in the Arizona Legislature.

In 1992, Maroney's came under attack from a bigger dry-cleaning company, American Linen and Supply Company, known as Alsco, over an environmental dispute.

Alsco's owner, Seattle multimillionaire David Maryatt, had purchased a dry-cleaning and laundry plant at 720 West Buchanan from Maroney's in 1979, seven years before Walton had taken over the business.

In 1992, Maryatt reaped $30 million from the sale of holdings in Oregon, Washington, California and Arizona. But he couldn't sell the West Buchanan plant because it sits in the middle of a state Superfund site--soil and groundwater beneath the Alsco property are dangerously contaminated with perchloroethylene, or PERC, a probable human carcinogen.

Somebody has to pay to clean up the $10.6 million mess, quickly, before it contaminates drinking-water reserves of the City of Tolleson, state officials say.

Because PERC has been used in dry cleaning for decades, no one knows for sure who contaminated the property--Alsco or Maroney's. The Arizona Attorney General's Office contends that the two companies share almost equal blame.

Maroney's denies contributing in any major way to the contamination, but Walton has nevertheless offered to settle with the state--despite the fact that Maroney's has no environmental liability insurance.

Although Maryatt has far more resources--including environmental liability insurance settlements of $1.9 million--he and Alsco have resisted paying more than 10 percent of the projected cleanup expense. The state has requested from $4 million to $5 million from Maryatt to pay for its share of the mess.

Settlement talks with Maroney's have not begun--partially because Alsco hasn't settled and partially because state officials know Maroney's would go broke if it were ordered to pay for a significant portion of the cleanup.

Determined to dodge substantial cleanup expenses, Maryatt began politicking, with great success.

His principal ally has been state Senator Russell Bowers, who has gone to remarkable lengths on Alsco's behalf.

Bowers has repeatedly pressured state officials who have tried to force Alsco to pay for its share of the cleanup.

Bowers has chaired legislative hearings in which Alsco has been portrayed as a small, cooperative company being choked by oppressive state environmental laws.

And this year, the Mesa senator has gone so far as to introduce legislation that would force the state to settle with Alsco for only $250,000. The measure, which was written for Alsco and specifically names the company, also would prevent the state from recovering further costs from Alsco.

And state officials say the Bowers bill would leave Walton with the impossible task of raising $10.5 million to clean up the property. Bowers knows Walton couldn't pay it, which means that Arizona taxpayers would wind up picking up most of the tab.

Charlotte Walton has already spent $200,000--one fifth of her company's onetime value--to pay lawyers and lobbyists to defend her company, first against Alsco, and now against Senator Bowers' bill. And if the Bowers bill doesn't pass, Alsco may file a third-party lawsuit against Maroney's, demanding cleanup costs.

If Walton loses any of these fights, Maroney's is almost certain to go out of business.

Charlotte Walton's life is difficult. She still puts in her long hours at the office, but now she's got an added responsibility: caring for her seriously ill, elderly mother. She often takes her mother to the doctor in the early morning, then works late to make up for the lost time. And she has an additional financial obligation--she pays for home-care givers for her mother.

She has little time to herself, but still yearns for the day that Alsco gets off her back and she settles with the state with Maroney's intact. Then perhaps she'll have the time and money to fulfill a wish to redecorate her Phoenix home, with its 1970s-style shag carpeting and the avocado-green refrigerator.

In Seattle, meanwhile, David Maryatt and his socialite wife Sally don't have such worries. In 1995, the Seattle Times reported about how the couple remodeled their expensive home with 175-year-old Aubusson carpets and elegant antiques, which gave the house a feel of "gilded formality."