El Rio Deal Culminates Into a Culprit Hearing for the City of Tucson and City Attorney Dennis P. McLaughlin

Last Friday, Judge Christopher Staring presided over a culprit hearing for Tucson’s failure to disclose public records concerning the potential sale of  El Rio golf course to Grand Canyon University.   A culprit hearing allows a trial court to determine whether a party (The City of Tucson and City Attorney Dennis P. McLaughlin), as opposed to that party’s counsel (now Michael McCrory), is responsible for a disclosure or discovery violations.  The following summary was provided by Scott Egan, who also interviewed Plaintiff Cecilia Cruz and and Attorney Bill Risner after the hearing in the videos below:

Not sure if my debut as a newscaster will win me any awards, but it was fun!

On the Albert Elias deposition on the GCU/El Rio Scam

In the lawsuit against the City of Tucson over access to public records regarding the sale of the El Rio public property to Grand Canyon University, a deposition was taken of Albert Elias, a long-term, top echelon entrenched bureaucrat in the City, who is supposedly being considered for appointment as the new city manager. His testimony, taken on October 14, 2014 and recorded by AuditAz (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TS9YgBxDMZw) reveals many disturbing factors swirling around Mr. Elias.

To begin with, Mr. Elias clearly takes credit for being the lead person on the GCU/El Rio deal. He states [57:34] that he and Chris Kaselemis “were the main people responsible” in the attempted sale. When attorney Bill Risner reponds “but you are above him” (Kaselemis) he answers “Yes.”

This attempt of a giant rip-off of public resources alone should disqualify him from any important position in public service, but as we have learned, in the City of Tucson such behavior is not only tolerated but awarded. In fact it seems that every bureaucrat that was involved in this corrupt deal has been either promoted or received a salary increase by the Mayor and Council.

Besides two years of blatant attempts by the City to ignore and violate Arizona state public document laws by illegally withholding public information (from both the public, the press, and the courts), another aspect of highly questionable legality concerns the phony appraisal the City had conducted in order to sell the property at below market value — a violation of Arizona’s Gift Clause. Mr. Elias, by his own testimony, was directly responsible and “concurred” with the appraisal [38:34] which directed the appraiser to value the 100+ acres — with hundreds beautiful trees covered in lush grass, with water and irrigation service, sewer and electric systems, a club house with a restaurant and a brand new center (built by the Conquistors for a kids program) and owned by the people of Tucson and maintained by their taxes — this parcel the City wanted to value as a “vacant” lot to sell on the cheap. A great deal for the developers. Not so good for every other taxpayer in Tucson.

Although Mr. Elias admits that he was in charge of the City Real Estate Division and this project in particular, he claims he did not give direct instructions to low-ball the value of the land (we may never know who did), but he testifies that he was “aware” that the appraisal was based on a “hypothetical” assumption that the land was vacant. He states that he supported the appraisal because it was based on “the highest and best use of the subject property as if vacant, for future development and mixed use.” [49:48]

To which Risner says: “Of course, it wasn’t vacant.”

“Correct.” responds Elias.

Besides these troubling statements, and the numerous attempts of the city attorney representative to prevent further questioning of how the phony appraisal was initiated, Mr. Elias also (if he is telling the truth in the deposition) has extreme ignorance of the basic rules on public records and the responsibilities public service workers have to the public they are supposed to serve. Or perhaps he is just lying.

For example, Risner asks Elias [103:10] if he is “aware that when there is a request, or a lawsuit relating to records, that a legal hold is placed on those records?”

Answer: “NO.”

Riser: “So you are not familiar with the public records rule in Arizona law that if there is a litigation, while that litigation is pending the records sought would be held and not destroyed.”

Answer: “No I’m not aware of that.”

In fact, Mr. Elias, who has worked for the City for many years and held many high positions in the organization, does not seem to be aware that any records should be preserved when an employee leaves their employment with the city. (Let us hope that when Mr. Elias does eventually retire, he destroys all of “his” city-owned files in an environmentally friendly way).

Finally, Mr. Elias’ comments go even past the point of feigned or legitimate ignorance when asked about any notes that he or his staff may have taken in their meetings here in Tucson or in Phoenix with officials from G.C.U. If one is to believe him, City of Tucson staff never take any notes.

As Risner asks [1:23] “Isn’t it common for staff to take notes at meetings?”

“No,” says Elias. “That is not common.”

That must save a lot of paper. (Of course, if they never use paper they also must be on the lookout for burglars that surreptitiously enter locked council offices and steal council members computers without setting off alarms or any trace of forceable entry).

There are certainly other amazing aspects of this fascinating interview, (like the fact that the City Parks Department, who have responsibility for El Rio, were never even consulted on the deal) and I would encourage anyone who has an hour and half to spend to actually watch the whole episode.  That may seem like a long time, but if Albert Elias is selected as our new City Manager life is going to be a long, slow, and very ugly period for Tucson — no matter how long he may survive in the position.

There is my two cents, and then some.

Scott D. Egan Chief Correspondent for … uh, what’s the name again?

Video courtesy of John Brakey

Scott Egan’s interview with Bill Risner

Scott Egan’s interview with Ceci Cruz

Here is the full video of last Friday’s culprit hearing:

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