Jesus Wouldn't Do That

Joseph Stedino, the Cadillac-size Mafioso, shoved wads of cash toward Bobby Raymond, a state legislator who looked like an altar boy holding a collection plate.

Stedino bribed the politician to secure off-reservation, goombah-style gambling in Arizona. Public servant Raymond promised action and plenty of it.

To establish street cred with the gangster, the legislator eschewed his oh-my-gosh appearance in favor of a little omertà aftershave: "I do deals," said Raymond. "I don't give a fuck about issues. There is not an issue in this world that I give a shit about."

The authorities, who'd staged the bribery in 1990 as part of AzScam, a government sting, turned the tapes over to news stations that broadcast them feverishly. I do not know when television ever captured the public's preconception about politics more vividly.

Seven legislators pleaded or were found guilty in court and more were ruined. Prosecutors charged Bobby Raymond with political corruption and locked him up in prison. Finding himself as infamous as any smuggler in a tuneful Mexican drug corrido, the legislator pulled two years.

When Raymond, a felon, walked out of his cell, he no longer had the right to vote.

But Raymond did not forget the taste of politics.

Arizona Congressman Trent Franks took a $500 contribution from Raymond last summer.

Bobby Raymond still did deals. And Congressman Franks, a vociferous Christian fundamentalist and self-professed fiscal conservative, is so broke he shamelessly took cash from a known felon busted for political corruption.

Let's establish a couple of facts.

First, this is not a case of mistaken identity. Congressman Franks knows who Bobby Raymond is; hell, everyone knows who Bobby Raymond is. But Congressman Franks especially knows who Bobby Raymond is because they ran against each other back in the day for a House seat in District 18 with the soon-to-be felon winning by 200 votes.

Second, this is not a case of deep political corruption. Far from it. Congressman Franks is like one of those buffoons you stumble across in the back chapters of a Mark Twain novel. With broken fedora, busted brogans, and torn jacket, our hero cannot sell enough medicinal elixir to stay solvent. He is so inept with money that he is sober against his will. Someone else will have to buy the next round.

Rick Murphy, in contrast, is a self-sufficient man. In the age of giant media conglomerates, he made his own way, grew a business based in the rough and tumble environment along the Colorado River. You talk to people who grew up with him and they tell you he is old school, pays his bills, and lives by his handshake instead of his contracts. He's a standup guy.

When he ran for Congress in 2002, Franks promised never to take money from Political Action Committees because he claimed the lobbyists who fund PACs wanted favors for their checks. But if Franks is so desperate that he vacuumed cash from the guilty and incarcerated, perhaps you won't be shocked to learn that the Congressman has gone back on his word and these days inhales PAC donations like Mississippi River riff-raff heedlessly gorging on a slops bucket.

Now that Franks is in a Republican primary race for reelection against radio entrepreneur Rick Murphy, the Congressman's tattered ethics stand out like chin stubble.

Candidate Murphy, after all, does not need PAC money and refuses to accept it.

Rick Murphy erected his first radio tower in Parker, Arizona, in 1974, and at the age of 24 was the youngest man ever to hold an FCC license. He built and owned 19 stations from Salt Lake City to Palm Springs. He still controls five stations, but the revenue from those he sold made him a millionaire several times over. While financial independence makes it easy for Murphy to reject donations from PACs, it is also consistent with his outlook generally.

"I don't like feeling obligated," said Murphy in a recent conversation. "I'm not taking PAC money. I look at it as special interest money. I prefer to be a free thinker."

Franks didn't return repeated phone calls seeking comment. But his record speaks for itself.

The Congressman's sleaze with PAC funding and campaign finance is aggravated by two remarkable priors: First, he needs the special interest money to satisfy personal debt; second, his inner circle is, and always was, tainted by the three stooges of Arizona political ethics -- Evan Mecham, Charles Keating and J. Fife Symington III.

You add AzScam's Bobby Raymond to this unholy trio and you need a computer to tally all the indictments.

Although he relentlessly touts himself as a fiscal conservative, Congressman Franks' claim amounts to identity theft. Nearly two decades of public life rattle with back taxes due, tax liens, lawsuits, judgments, car repossession, expired auto tags and federal fines. For much of this period, he nickel-and-dimed taxpayers until you could picture him wandering around church picnics with a Post-it note on his forehead that read: "Deadbeat."