Prez House Stench

Arizona State University failed to release crucial information related to the controversial sale of the ASU president's house when it didn't give New Times the transcript of a telephone call from a real estate broker who alleged serious misconduct in the sale of the property.

Rather than coming clean about its failure to comply with my May 2 public records request for all documents related to the sale of the house, ASU is now demanding that New Times make myriad unwarranted corrections to my original column on the sleazy real estate deal that shortchanged taxpayers more than half a million dollars ("Bleak House," June 8, 2006).

"ASU hereby demands that the New Times timely correct its false statements as required under A.R.S. S12-653.03," ASU General Counsel Paul Ward thundered in a June 28 letter to New Times. (An excerpt from that missive leads the Letters section of this week's edition.)

I've got bad news for you, Paul.

First of all, the statute you cite was ruled unconstitutional by the Arizona Supreme Court in 1986. So, go back and pound your law books.

Second, New Times, based on the facts at hand, stands by the June 8 column. (An earlier June 16 letter from ASU public affairs officer Terri Shafer requesting corrections and my point-by-point response are attached.)

A quick recap: As I reported last month, ASU sold the property in August 2005 for $1.375 million to John Bebbling, a prominent Tempe businessman with close ties to Tempe city hall and a longtime ASU booster.

Bebbling quickly obtained city approval to build eight luxury homes on the two-acre site without being subjected to potentially contentious public hearings from neighbors concerned about a higher-density development next door.

Bebbling then razed the home and, in January of this year, formally sold the property to a business partner, Phoenix custom home builder JC & Sons, for $2 million.

Bebbling grossed a $625,000 gain on the deal, which was put together by Tempe real estate agent Steve Tseffos. ASU contracted with Tseffos to sell the property after university officials provided Tseffos with inside information prior to ASU seeking public bids for brokerage services.

ASU sold the property to Bebbling, even though former state Representative Steve May submitted the highest net offer. The sale of the house to Bebbling handed Tseffos a $55,000 commission. Tseffos, according to his contract with ASU, would have only received a $27,080 commission if the property had been sold to May.

I submitted a detailed request for public records to ASU on May 2 seeking all documents related in any way to the sale of the property. I went through hundreds of pages of university documents and engaged in numerous e-mail and telephone conversations with ASU's Shafer concerning my request.

Despite my thorough review and requests for additional records, ASU failed to release a two-page transcript of a September 28, 2005, phone call from a Tempe real estate broker that would have shed glaring light on the president's house situation.

I obtained the transcript on June 28 only after having submitted a second request for records on June 15. That request was spurred by calls I received from several readers of my June 8 column who provided additional information.

The transcript documents a voice mail to ASU general counsel Ward from Mike Ratliff, a real estate broker who lives near the president's house property. According to the transcript, Ratliff alleged that there was "definitely some subterfuge" in the sale of the property at 2400 South College Avenue in Tempe and that he thought "John Bebbling was in cahoots with Steve Tseffos".

Neither Bebbling nor Tseffos would respond to questions I posed to them.

Remember, Ratliff complained to ASU months before my original column was written. Ratliff's voice mail should have triggered an immediate investigation of the sale of the property. Instead, ASU chose not to act on Ratliff's serious allegations of "fraud" and "collusion" and then violated the state public records law by at least initially withholding the Ratliff transcript from New Times.

Shafer denies that ASU failed to disclose the transcript to New Times in a timely manner.

"The university did not withhold this document," she claims in a June 28 e-mail when she finally released the transcript. "The Office of General Counsel forwarded it to me after you told me you finished your story. I did not forward it because I thought you no longer needed it."

Now that's laughable.

Ward and his minions in the Office of General Counsel reviewed my public records request in early May. ASU attorneys surely knew that Ratliff's phone call was relevant to my public records request, yet they didn't release it until after my column was published nearly five weeks later.