At first blush, the FBI’s recent investigations into Arizona politicians appeared to be limited to just a handful of low-level state lawmakers who have been charged with federal crimes.
But records uncovered this week by TPM show at least one of the probes has been linked to some of the most powerful politicians in the state government as well as a shadowy conservative group known as ALEC, which has drawn national scrutiny for its outsized influence in state capitols across the country.The investigation centers on an Arizona super lobbyist who was hired in 2009 by undercover federal agents. The agents posed as high rollers from what they said was a New York City company called Longford Solutions LLC. They came to town looking to make hefty deals to buy land from local governments and allegedly offered gifts like sports tickets to help grease the wheels.
The probe has already led to the indictment of state Rep. Ben Arredondo (D) on charges of bribery and attempted extortion. He has pleaded not guilty. Federal authorities say the inquiry is still ongoing.
Another lawmaker, Rep. Richard Miranda (D), resigned from office earlier this year and pleaded guilty to swindling thousands of dollars from a charity he ran. The federal investigation that brought him down so far appears to be separate from the Arredondo probe, though Miranda’s lawyer has raised questions about whether the two are connected.
Now, records on file with the state show Arredondo wasn’t the only lawmaker that lobbyist Mike Williams met with while representing the FBI’s front company, Longford Solutions.
On Feb. 16, 2009, Williams spent money on the company’s behalf to entertain two of the most powerful Republicans in the House, Majority Leader John McComish and Majority Whip Andy Tobin. The amount he spent was low, just $65.96, and was designated for “food or beverages.”
A similar meeting took place about two weeks later on March 3, 2009 with Rep. Cloves Campbell, a low-ranking member of the Democratic minority. Williams spent $24.09, again on food or drink, to entertain the lawmaker on behalf of Longford Solutions.
Three days after that, on March 6, 2009, Williams met with Rep. Jim Weiers, an influential Republican who served three terms as speaker of the House, the most powerful position in the chamber. Records show the lobbyist spent $54.58 on food or drink for the GOP big.
The records don’t say what the meetings were about or where they took place.
None of the lawmakers at those meetings has been accused of wrongdoing. When asked on Friday, Manuel Johnson, a spokesman for the FBI’s Phoenix office, wouldn’t confirm or deny whether any of the men were under investigation.
Reached at his House office on Friday, Weiers told TPM he has had lunch with Williams numerous times over the years and knows him “better than some, not as good as others.” But he said he had no recollection of the March 6, 2009 meeting.
“Have I been out to lunch with Mike Williams? Absolutely,” Weiers said. “To remember back to ’09, I have absolutely no recollection of any land anything. And when it comes to Ben Arredondo, he’s been down there for one term. He’s just finishing up his second year. I don’t think I’ve spoken 10 words to him.”
Weiers said he has not been contacted by the FBI or federal prosecutors, but a private detective working for Arredondo called him about four weeks ago with questions. He said he has not made any effort to retain a lawyer.
The lawmaker said he recently called Williams to find out what was going on after learning his name was connected to the probe. Weiers asked the lobbyist how Longford Solutions came into the picture. “He said, ‘They called and asked if I could have them meet people,'” Weiers recalled. He said Williams told him nothing resulted from their meeting.
“I don’t do deals,” Weiers said. “I’m a little unique. If it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea. If it’s not, it’s not.”
Likewise, Campbell told TPM he could not recall whether Williams was accompanied by a Longford Solutions executive during their 2009 meeting and could not remember where the meeting took place.
“I don’t really recall anything. You know, we would probably meet with five or six different lobbyists over a week’s time,” Campbell told TPM on Friday. “I couldn’t even tell you what we talked about. I don’t even remember what it was.”
Campbell said he has never been contacted by the FBI and did not recall what Longford Solutions was interested in.
McComish and Tobin did not return messages left Friday at their offices. Contacted previously by TPM, Williams said he knew nothing about the FBI probe and then hung up.
Since the meetings, most of the lawmakers have changed jobs. Tobin is now the powerful House speaker, McComish was elected to the state Senate and Cambell lost his 2010 reelection bid. Weiers still has the same job but is planning to leave after his term ends at the end of the year.
The timing of these meetings matches closely with dates laid out in the recent indictment against Arredondo. Federal prosecutors say he began his alleged lawbreaking on Feb. 18, 2009 while he was still a small time city councilman in Tempe, Ariz.
The indictment said Arredondo started pressuring the undercover agents, posing as Longford executives, to pay for things like tables at charity events that the lawmaker could then use for himself.
The pattern continued, according to the indictment, for weeks after Arredondo got elected to the state House in November 2009. During that time, prosecutors allege, he took thousands of dollars in tickets and other gifts from the undercover agents.
Meanwhile, Williams, the lobbyist, kept working on Longford Solutions’ behalf, even traveling to places like Philadelphia and Atlanta to attend swanky conferences where state lawmakers and lobbyists from throughout the nation could meet behind closed doors.
One of those meetings, according to Arizona records, was the 2009 annual gathering of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, widely known by its initials ALEC.
Hosted in Atlanta and featuring guests like former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the conference was the kind that the organization has come under intense scrutiny for in recent years. Journalists and liberal activists have uncovered evidence showing conferences like this were used as a conduit for lobbyists and big corporations to write their own laws, which were then handed directly to lawmakers for introduction in statehouses all over the nation.
On July 15, 2009, Williams spent $123.10 at the conference on behalf of Longford Solutions, according to the records.
Less than a week later, from July 21 to 23, Williams was at another gathering of lawmakers in Philadelphia. This time it was the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual summit. Speakers like then-U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke headlined the event and it was another chance to mingle with influential state politicians from throughout the nation. There, records show, Williams spent $196.70 on behalf of the phony company.
As with the lawmakers, no one from ALEC or NCSL has been accused of wrongdoing and there is no indication the organizations or their practices are under federal investigation. The trips simply open a window into what exactly went into the investigation that ensnared Arredondo.
Meagan Dorsch, a spokeswoman with NCSL, said she hadn’t heard about the investigation before being contacted Friday by TPM and that the organization doesn’t generally release rosters of conference attendees. She declined to provide any other comment. A message left with an ALEC spokesperson was not immediately returned.
Federal authorities have made it clear that their investigation is still ongoing. Recently, prosecutors filed documents in U.S. District Court in Arizona asking for evidence in the Arredondo case to be sealed because it could affect other people who have not yet been named.
In his order granting the request, federal Magistrate Judge Lawrence Anderson said the evidence included “materials relating to the investigation of third persons and/or entities” as well as “materials relating to individuals who have agreed to cooperate with the Government in the investigation of other persons or entities.” He acknowledged that the release of the information could have an effect on ongoing federal probes.