Fire and Brimstone Bill, also known as Bill Larkin Nugent to those who've seen his court records, warned all ye taxpaying pawns that we at the newspaper were going to make some fireworks of this campaign.
"Now I'm telling you, after this meeting tonight, you'll see the Miner heat up," he said last week during a Praise Chapel candidate forum. "They'll try and skew this city."
I hate when people make such predictions, but I hate even more to disappoint ...
Now, I'll be the first to admit, Nugent's a smart man. Ask anybody who knows him - or somebody who signed a development contract with him before reading the fine print - and they'll tell you that. If you ask him, he'll tell you he's a self-made man who's worked seven days a week because he possesses a strong work ethic. Ask one of his old business partners and they'll tell you he has an ego as big as a house.
But there's little doubt that he'd clean up city hall - at least those departments that would ease strain on the development industry.
Recently, since announcing his candidacy for mayor, he's remade himself as a millionaire-slash-average-Joe fighting against high-paid city officials who fits into a nice jock package - he was a professional football player, so he's naturally aggressive. (Translation: hot-head with a short temper.)
When he made the prediction that the Miner, meaning Nicholas Wilbur at the Miner, would turn up the heat, I admit to having been offended and retaliatory. I slept on it, and, over the next few days, I grew more and more adamant about proving him wrong: I decided not to turn up the heat on this campaign.
But then I got this sick feeling in my stomach and I remembered that Nugent's a smart guy. And he's not just "oh I'm a millionaire developer" type of smart; He also is very good with people. I read several e-mails between him and our former city manager, Paul Beecher. I've seen him interact with the public on numerous occasions, and I've personally experienced the charm of one who knows how to work with people - or just work people, depending on what you have to offer. If there's some mutual interest, such as votes to his candidacy or power to push through his development, then Nugent's an angel. (The word chameleon also comes to mind.)
He had made a comment after the forum about Andraya Whitney, the reporter who until recently covered the city government beat. You know why I like Andraya? he asked me, She's honest.
Bite Down Hard
This gut ache wouldn't go away, so I bent over and asked my stomach what was wrong. "What's the problem little belly?" After making several indistinguishable grumbles, it finally replied, "The Nuge gotcha."
I had no idea what that meant, but I started asking questions. Had I written something he didn't like that would spur those comments? I tried to remember the issues I'd covered over the last year: egregious city department head salaries, violations of the laws governing impact fees, the magical well site bidding policy, the economic development director's secret severance package, the lawsuit over public records that cost the city whatever remained of its credibility ...
No. Considering that the Nuge is using all of those as a foundation for his platform to demonstrate why a change is needed in local government, it would be hypocritical to insinuate that I was dishonest for covering those issues.
Why else would he say those things? Why does he expect me to turn up the heat? Why did he insinuate that I was dishonest?
Just What the Doctor Ordered
I thought and I thought, and finally it came to me: My first interaction with Nuge was on the phone back in February 2007, after I wrote an article about Vanderbilt Farms.
Fire and Brimstone Bill had called, screamed and hung up on me.
I wrote this: "The Tempe-based company that recently purchased 200 acres on the north side of where the Kingman Crossing interchange is proposed has strong ties to a former Phoenix-based real estate tycoon who was convicted of fraud in 1993 for bilking taxpayers in an infamous savings and loan scandal."
So why is Andraya honest? Because she wrote this: "City Council approved a rezoning request and preliminary plat for the Kingman Crossing area shopping center planned by Vanderbilt Farms LLC Monday, as recommended by the Planning and Zoning Commission."
No wonder I'm the dishonest one.
But why would that matter? Well, it shouldn't. I wrote about Conley Wolfswinkel owing taxpayers $2 billion for bilking retirees in the worst corporate action of our country's pre-Enron days - the infamous Savings & Loan Scandal - because we believed it was important to educate the public about who our new partner was on the Kingman Crossing interchange project. Wolfswinkel's sons had just bought more than 200 acres on the north side of Interstate 40, directly across from the city's acreage.
But it does matter, because if Kingman Crossing were to go by any other name, it would be The Nuge Project.
Plans to develop an interchange at Kingman Crossing started with him. He owned the 200 acres at Kingman Crossing North, he signed the cost-sharing agreement with the city on preliminary design of Kingman Crossing, and he sold the 200 acres at Kingman Crossing North to Wolfswinkel's sons, the owners of Vanderbilt Farms LLC. To date, he still holds part ownership in more than 1,000 lots at Kingman Crossing North.
The hope was that it would keep us from putting ourselves on the losing end of a win-lose situation in terms of a cost-sharing agreement for construction of the proposed interchange with Vanderbilt Farms. And for that reason I believe it was not fair to hang up on me. But from Nugent's perspective, it was a setback to tell people about a felon's history, or his more recent history of losing another lawsuit and being charged with breach of fiduciary duty.
For someone who owns land out there, having this on the front page of the paper is bad for the pocketbook. So, the logical solution is to kick and scream and hang up on people. Worked out well didn't it?
This information explains the nature of our first interaction. It also explains why he sees Andraya as the "honest" reporter at the Miner. Now, I'm not throwing Andraya under the bus, as Nugent did to every city official, department head, local developer and government critic who fell victim to his serpent tonguing at the last several forums. Andraya was an awesome reporter. She came in without any experience yet seemed to have this inherent ability to write clear, concise and poignant news reports - not to forget her very entertaining, very revealing opinion columns about the ignorance of city officials.
She didn't, however, write anything controversial about The Nuge Project. That's not because she wasn't a bulldog; it was because nothing happened with the Nuge Project other than a few public hearings that drew almost no comment from the public or discussion from elected officials. She didn't write anything controversial about the Crossing because there was nothing controversial to write.
So that's cleared up: Nugent wasn't complimenting Andraya solely because she's a good reporter; he was doing it because she didn't write anything controversial about The Nuge Project.
But it doesn't explain why the Nuge warned of us turning up the heat. He criticized me, I believe, to try and induce that retaliatory response expected of any young buck journalist who wants to prove himself to an older, wiser person of power. He's smart enough to know that he could push my buttons so that I'd not turn up the heat just to prove him wrong. And he was right - at first.
At the same time that this was going on, the Miner Editorial Board received word that Nuge was not coming in for his interview. Every one of the other 11 candidates running for office had kept their appointment, but not the Nuge. He didn't like the prospect of being questioned without knowing the questions, so he canceled.
But then the Nuge heard "through the grape vine" what I was up to, and he called to talk about it. "I know kind of where you're headed with Friday's column," he said. Then, "Just remember, this stuff can backfire."
My column can backfire? What does that mean? It sounded almost threatening, but I wasn't going to jump to conclusions. I am not as smart as the Nuge. But I asked him to come in and talk about it - and, as he would be in the vicinity anyway, to meet with the Editorial Board at the same time. He agreed.
When he entered the room, he said, "I thought it would be my only chance to look the enemy in the eye," and he held in his hand four single sheets of paper. In that moment it became clear both why he had refused to meet with the Board and why my column could backfire.
Dog Eat Dog
Two of the papers showed that the judgment of guilt on an illegal campaign contribution had been set aside after being reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. Apparently, Nuge had contributed $1,000 to a referendum campaign by using another person to make the donation, keeping his name off the documents. According to several sources, this referendum campaign would have eliminated competition to one of his subdivisions in the area.
We at the Miner surmised that Nugent didn't want to come before the Board because he didn't want to be asked about his illegal campaign contribution. Avoidance never works, of course, so when he heard that I was writing a column, he got worried and came in. (Of course, he doesn't know me well, because while I may be young, I'm not an idiot, and without any documentation of his illegal campaign contribution, there was no way I would have printed anything. But, thanks to Mr. Nugent, I now can. My column was going to be about his sly ways of getting me to not turn up the heat.
The other two sheets of paper, the ones that fit the "backfire" description mentioned earlier, were from a blog I wrote last February. Now, you may recall this blog. Mayor Les Byram had taken it around town screaming bloody murder because in it I made some less-than-flattering comments about Kingman. Every real estate business in town found copies of it on their fax machines, every Rotary or Elks member received a copy, Beverly Liles had a whole file of copies, and it looked like the source of it all, our former city manager, had succeeded in distributing it in an attempt to discredit what I'd written about his checkered past.
I apologized because I wrote the blog in the heat of the moment, and, thankfully, most empathized with the frustration felt by any 20-something-year-old city boy moving to rural Arizona. Of course, I topped all others by illustrating my stupidity and putting it online rather than muttering it under my breath.
So Nugent, a year later, comes up with this blog post like it's the holy grail of deep dark secrets. He's heard about my column, so he comes in with evidence of his admitted guilt to the illegal campaign contribution about which he incorrectly thought I was writing. (I will note here that the very intelligent Bill Nugent says he was ignorant of the law. Apparently, the intelligence that made him a millionaire didn't come with the sense that filtering money through someone else so your name isn't on the campaign contribution documents is illegal. He admitted that ignorance of the law is no excuse.)
Talking about the campaign contribution, he said, "You understand Nick, I have these two pieces of paper that can be misconstrued depending on how they're brought out ..." and pointing to the blog, "just like these papers can be used against your career."
Turn it Up
Well, if I didn't have a reason to write a column about Fire and Brimstone Bill and his sly ways of pressuring the media out of any negative coverage of his development project, I did now. "(U)sed against my career"? I felt threatened, to be honest, but I know now that as innocent as Bill is regarding his campaign contribution, he's not so dumb as to threaten a journalist in front of his editor, copy editor and publisher. And all-knowing Nuge definitely wasn't so foolish to do it while my recorder was taping his every word.
Maybe he was just making a point. He gave someone $1,000 to put toward a referendum campaign that would have benefited himself; I wrote a blog. Equal playing field? Sure. And if it weren't for the fact that he's running his own campaign now, both the issues would be irrelevant, but he is so they are.
I'm really not here to turn up the heat on the campaign or on the Nuge. I'm here to explain a situation I believe speaks volumes about a man who claims to be running for mayor because his "heart's in the right place" and because he wants to see a leader who puts everything on the table, one who returns to open and honest government.
Live it Up
I will predict, as Nugent did, that the heat will be turned up on this campaign: Nugent will come out guns blazing. But not against his opponents. You'll hear exactly what you want to hear: salaries and red tape will be cut, impact fees abolished and Kingman Crossing made the best project ever - coincidentally everything that will benefit developers.
I may not survive this, however. The blog, and whatever else can be found on my deep, dark past, may well be "used against my career," as Nugent said.
If this comes out, or something equally as ridiculous, like the mayor claiming I was fired from my last job, it may well be the end of me. Nugent pretty much explained that moving on his illegal campaign contribution may backfire - career suicide, basically. I may never find work again. Thanks for the warning, Bill.
I'm of the mindset that a journalist's career isn't much of one at all if the purpose of the job is to educate the public, and it is, but the reality of the job is to shy away from writing anything that could make a millionaire enemy who has the means to end said career. Job or none, McDonald's is always hiring, and at least I'd be able to sleep at night.
Fire and Brimstone Bill's a bully. That's the point. It doesn't mean he'd be a bad mayor, and honestly, I've been more impressed with him than anybody so far. The truth is, we've given space to everyone but always more to him. When it comes to fairness, we haven't been: no matter the order the candidates speak, he's always quoted first. No matter who speaks the longest, he's always quoted the most. It is unfair, but he's got flair.
What he's shown is how he goes about getting what he wants. (Is it working out as well as you'd hoped, Bill?)
I think I'll close with another quote from the Nuge, "You can't ever go wrong when you print what the person says. Let the public decide what the deal is."
I think I have, and I think they will.