The Arizona Department of Commerce's crack public information officer, Don Harris, is often at a loss for words. When New Times asked six months ago whether he'd gone to the Super Bowl, Harris drew a blank.
He performed an encore Monday when questioned about a change of leadership at the state's Office of Trade, Tourism and Investment in Mexico City.
Jorge Z. Mejia had directed the office for three years. But his contract was not renewed. Instead, the state signed a $65,000-a-year contract with J. Manuel Diaz Barreiro Letcher to run the office.
A 1994 New Times story ("Trade Secrets") detailed Mejia's poor qualifications for the trade post, as well as his habit of steering contracts to family members. Mejia himself had received a $3,000 check--reportedly for translation services--from a friend of Governor J. Fife Symington III; the friend was hoping to do business in Mexico. When Mejia's secretary told Commerce Department officials about what appeared to be an improper payment to Mejia, she was promptly fired.
Asked whether Mejia was one of 40 applicants for the recently awarded directorship contract, Harris fell silent. But he didn't hang up, because ambient sound from his office could be heard.
"Come on, that's public information," our reporter insisted.
Fifteen seconds of silence.
"You still there?"
"Don, are you still there? You're not going to answer the question? You can't even acknowledge whether you're here on the phone or not? This is ridiculous."
Furtive listening sounds.
"Now, did Jorge Mejia seek renewal of that contract?"
Contacted an hour later, Harris had regained some of his speaking ability. He told our reporter to talk to someone else.
Abuse the Express Lane at Your Own Risk
New Times reported in April that despite the huge influx of volunteers joining Sheriff Joe Arpaio's posses, few members were actually turning out for high-profile Joe Shows ("Mutiny at the County," April 25).
Hard-core members told New Times the number of truly dedicated posse men and women was shockingly small. Out of 2,700 volunteers the county had trained--including the 800 taught to shoot straight at a cost to taxpayers of $359,000--only 50 to 100 could regularly be counted on to show up when the sheriff wanted to stage a press event; by the fourth week of a highly publicized program last spring, an average of nine posse members was showing up each day to help bust drug dealers.
In response, the Sheriff's Office cajoled inactive volunteers and wrestled with ways to keep interest high among the diehards. Arpaio's marketing geniuses cooked up an elite, SWAT-like posse with the serious-sounding name of the Street Crimes Unit. It would consist of gung-ho volunteers culled from 56 different posses.
On August 17, the Street Crimes Unit was spotted in action. Dressed in black from head to toe, the grim-looking posse men were all business, their handguns displayed prominently on black leather belts. The elite crew patrolled in twos, presumably for safety, in case the posse found itself surrounded by lawbreakers. But one member was seen breaking away from his partner.
To buy an Orange Julius.
The Street Crimes Unit was on high alert at the Christown mall, provoking curious stares from the already plentiful rental cops keeping an eye on things. The surplus of fuzz led one observer to ask if the posse had been called out to escort the sheriff to another pink-underwear-signing session.
"The sheriff?" said a posse member. "No. You don't see any cameras, do you?"
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