PHOENIX -- Political life in Arizona has taken another devastating blow with indictment of seven state lawmakers, four lobbyists and seven others on charges that include bribery, money laundering and campaign-law violations.
Last week's events here and those in Washington involving Republican gubernatorial candidate J. Fife Symington marked the latest in a series of political mishaps that have Arizonans reeling.
The indictments came after local authorities conducted a yearlong "sting," which some Arizonans have dubbed "Operation Desert Shame," under the guise of an attempt to legalize casino gambling.
This produced videotaped meetings between legislators and a police agent, actually an ex-felon posing as a free-spending Las Vegas gambling figure, that resemble scenes from a cheap movie. In one, a legislator suggests that, to corral pro-gambling votes from those who otherwise might be opposed, prostitutes be hired or lawmakers be tailed to catch those who cheat on their spouses.
The recent turmoil dates to the impeachment and ouster in 1988 of Gov. Evan Mecham (R), followed by the still-unresolved "Keating Five" savings-and-loan scandal that swept up both Arizona senators, Dennis DeConcini (D) and John McCain (R).
Then came voter rejection in November of a paid state holiday to mark the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That has brought Arizona unfavorable national publicity and may result in loss of professional football's 1993 Super Bowl, worth an estimated $200 million.
On Thursday, when Symington went to Washington for a fund-raiser with President Bush, he was the target of allegations at a congressional hearing that he participated illegally in a real estate partnership with a failed savings and loan.
The sting operation has even touched the gubernatorial runoff election scheduled Feb. 26 because neither Symington nor Terry Goddard (D) received more than 50 percent of the vote in the November general election.
Symington's campaign took in $7,200 linked to the scandal, and Goddard received $1,100, according to grand jury indictments. There is no indication that either candidate knew the source of the funds, and both said they have refunded the money to Phoenix police and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which collaborated in the sting.
Phoenix pollster Earl DeBerge said the scandal would trigger a throw-the-rascals-out mood among Arizona voters. "This will hit all politicians, even those not touched by the scandal," he said. "It will lend credibility to any charge."
DeBerge said it is not clear whether voters will become more involved in the process, submitting more ballot initiatives, "or become so depressed they turn their back."
The indictment said payoffs to lawmakers and others totaled more than $370,000, ranging from $85,520 to Ernest Hoffman, a Tucson lobbyist, to $660 accepted by Rep. Jim Hartdegen (R-Casa Grande). Under state law, the maximum individual political contribution to a legislator is $220.
Other indicted legislators and the amounts they are accused of accepting are Reps. Don Kenney (R-Phoenix) $60,250; Sen. Carolyn Walker (D-Phoenix) $25,880; Rep. Sue Laybe (D-Phoenix) $24,960; Rep. Bobby Raymond (D-Phoenix) $12,105; Rep. Jim Meredith (R-Phoenix) $9,300; and Sen. Jesus "Chuy" Higuera (D-Tucson) $4,040.
Among others indicted was Phoenix lobbyist Rich Scheffel, who was accused of accepting $52,620 and, under a plea agreement, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery. George Stragalas, former executive director of the state Democratic Party who lost a race last year for state treasurer, was accused of accepting $29,450. Also caught up in the operation are a former lawmaker, a justice of the peace and a bail bondsman.
Authorities said money used in the sting had been confiscated in racketeering cases.
The indictment said Walker sought a $750,000 loan from the sting's central figure, who used the name J. Anthony Vincent. He was identified in court documents as Joseph C. Stedino, a former Las Vegas television personality convicted in 1984 in a scheme involving $150,000 in stolen travelers checks.
The indictment said Walker also told "Vincent" that she wanted to "die rich" and wanted to own gift-shop concessions at any casinos he opened. "We all have our prices," it quoted her as saying.
Higuera, the indictment said, put in a bid to provide the casinos with shrimp and said he wanted to control their fax-machine operations.
Kenney, a lawyer who the indictment said described himself as quarterback of the scheme, is quoted as suggesting the sex angle to "Vincent." At one point, Kenney is seen on videotape stuffing what the indictment said is $55,000 into a gym bag.
At least twice, lawmakers quipped to "Vincent" that they certainly would not want to be filmed accepting money from him.
House Speaker Jane Hull (R-Phoenix) has urged indicted House members to resign, and she replaced Kenney and Hartdegen as committee chairmen. In the Senate, Higuera stepped down as a committee chairman. Walker put herself on inactive status as majority whip, as did Majority Leader Alan Stephens (D-Phoenix), named in a civil suit but not indicted.
Both houses are expected to launch ethics probes quickly.