In the history of Arizona corruption, the Fiesta Bowl affair seems like small ball. There was the bribe-fest AzScam, which rocked the Legislature in the early 1990s, part of a once-a-generation such skeleton to be kicked out of the closet on 17th Avenue. Around the same time, Phoenix was an epicenter of the savings-and-loan scandal. Don't forget all that slithered out from under rocks kicked over after the assassination of Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles in 1976. He wasn't the first or last to die as a result of Arizona's dark deeds, some leading to the most powerful men in the state before the trail was quickly erased. Bolles was a master of probing the massive land frauds that saturated Arizona, often with Mafia involvement. The Phoenix Police Department's organized-crime unit claimed many scalps, including that of a city manager, until it got too close to big power for comfort and was defanged. Old-timers remember the circa 1960 Arizona Savings collapse and scandal, which again led to the corridors of power. More recently, right-wing darling Rick Renzi lost his U.S. House seat after becoming embroiled in allegations of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering extortion and insurance fraud — the Bush administration fired the U.S. Attorney in Phoenix for pursuing the investigation of one of Tom DeLay's boyz.
Compared with this, some goodies for John Junker, the once lionized and now forced-out-and-shunned Fiesta Bowl boss, along with allegedly funnelling bowl money to politicians, etc., seems almost petty crime. A charge of $1,241 for a visit to a "high-end Phoenix strip club"? Junker's 50th birthday party at Pebble Beach, $33,188? This was just another day at the office, or bar, back in the day of real Phoenix scandal. That's why I can't stop wondering whether it is the tip of a desert iceberg, something beyond the high dudgeon of Sports Illustrated as something confined to policing the BCS. The question is whether the Arizona Republic, in particular, will let some fine reporters continue to follow this slimy string and pull out some others.
Corruption is supposed to go along with gritty eastern cities, Democratic pols greasing the palms of mobbed up union bosses, waterfronts and Rust Belt decay. But don't be fooled by your new house on a clean street in Anthem. The underworld runs deep here, right into your very street. No place is clean, of course. It's rather like the news stories that tell of the lurid exurban multiple homicide with the mandatory "things like this don't happen here" quote (when sub- and exurbia are actually quite prone to them). The question is why Phoenix remains such a mecca for hustles, dirty dealings and wrongdoing that reaches the top?
Part of the answers are historical and sociological. Phoenix got mobbed up in the 1950s, with its first back-office sector opening up as a back office to the Mafia in Las Vegas. The aforementioned land fraud was a serious problem for decades until it was mostly made obsolete by legal forms of real estate scams, from gaming the location of freeways to make land valuable and land swaps involving National Forests and other public lands, to liar loans pumped out of boiler rooms during the great boom. And, I must point out, using tax dollars to build a football stadium in the middle of nowhere largely to enrich sprawl developers. Also, Phoenix is not only a major destination in the witness relocation program — it has been for decades — it's in general a place where people come for an anonymous fresh start. For the right person, let's say, easy money can be made, no questions asked. And this was the backbeat long before drugs from Mexico and illegal firearms send back south became such a scourge.
Meanwhile, institutional weakness and corruption have only grown. Phoenix is still a small town from a power perspective. The real stewards withered years ago, to be replaced by the likes of Charlie Keating and the Real Estate Industrial Complex. In frontier days, the big mining concerns and railroads wanted the Legislature stupid. Now those cowboy solons look like the Constitutional Convention compared with today's Kookocracy, and this Legislature is charged with the needs of a highly urbanized state with more than 6 million people. One-party rule is now the norm, never a healthy situation and particularly when the one party is marked by extremism, wild reaction and supported by the outsized influence of the LDS. Most of the Legislature now consists of professional party hacks or grasping "small-business men" all tied to the Real Estate Industrial Complex, many to the East Valley power elite, and quite a few obviously open to favors if not outright bribes.
Counterweights are few. Arizona lacks the pluralism and multiple centers of power that one would expect in a state with such population and large cities. The opposition party seems all but dead. Major business leaders with a stake in a healthy community can be counted on one hand, and that's a generous count. The "leadership" that's left is much diminished from Phoenix even in the 1990s and mostly involved in various dodgy land activities and delusion. A diverse economy is lacking. Unions are weak. The media are generally incurious — on the Fiesta Bowl board was the publisher of the Republic — and they face a culture of civic disconnection and ignorance anyway. The members of The Resistance who stand and fight are marginalized by lack of money and powerful allies. The power structure that remains is highly compromised. No wonder, then, that the troubles and allegations continue to bubble involving Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the county government in general. A seep here. A bad odor there.
The result is summed up in a quote from the Scarface remake, where Tony Montana says, "This is paradise, I'm tellin' ya. This town is like..." Let's say, easily exploited. You can look the rest up if you wish. You can look under the rocks in Phoenix — or around the highest-powered soiree.