Steller: Like Rio Nuevo itself, probe produced a lot of nada

2013-10-16T00:00:00Z 2014-03-18T21:38:06Z Steller: Like Rio Nuevo itself, probe produced a lot of nadaTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 16, 2013 12:00 am  • 

It makes sense that the results of the criminal investigation into Rio Nuevo’s finances emerged last week in a convoluted, back-door manner.

The whole thing has been convoluted and back-door from the beginning — not just the investigation, but Rio Nuevo itself.

News that nobody will be prosecuted for squandering millions in taxpayer money came via an email sent out Thursday by the state-appointed Rio Nuevo board. That was the day after they received the word.

But Assistant Attorney General Mike Jette penned the letter to his supervisor on Dec. 11, 2012. In other words, Rio Nuevo’s many local critics have been pining hopelessly for indictments for 10 months since the investigation ended.

Jette, who worked on the investigation with FBI agents for 18 months, said it is standard practice for the Attorney General’s Office to keep confidential any decision not to pursue criminal charges against the target of an investigation. The idea is that it would cause unfair embarrassment to the target, which seems sensible in a more typical investigation.

But in this case, the investigation was of an amorphous tangle of financial transactions with a series of individuals attached. It shouldn’t have required former Rio Nuevo board member Rick Grinnell’s September request to the Attorney General’s Office for an update on the investigation to break the findings loose. The release of the decision not to prosecute doesn’t embarrass anyone.

The embarrassment in this case applies more to the instigators of it. Jette did not name former Rio Nuevo board chair Jodi Bain or existing board member Alberto Moore (or any other individuals) in the letter, but he sent these zingers their way:

“Additionally, very little information provided by the initial complaining members of the Rio Nuevo Board proved to be either accurate or reliable,” he wrote. “Significantly, these same board members made public statements causing intense media scrutiny which impeded the FBI’s ability to catch material witnesses and potential suspects off guard with unannounced interviews.”

Moore acknowledged that he and Bain brought information to the Attorney General’s Office and FBI in 2010, the year they were named as part of the newly constituted board running the Rio Nuevo revitalization project.

What about Jette’s negative assessment of the information they provided? “That’s baloney,” Moore told me Tuesday.

“That’s what we were asked to do, to investigate and find out, using a variety of sources to find out how money was spent,” Moore said of his appointment to the board in 2010. “We were trying to find out where the bodies were buried.”

I asked Moore what was his best evidence of criminal wrongdoing, and he said, “It was the accounting, the identification of how monies were being spent and directed.”

He mentioned a short-movie contract given to a firm in New York and other contracts given to out-of-state companies as possible covers for kickbacks or other wrongdoing. He also accused Jette and City Attorney Mike Rankin of being friends who engaged in a conspiracy to quash the Rio Nuevo investigation.

With that, I started to understand what Jette meant about inaccuracy and unreliability. Jette, who led the prosecution of the mayor of Nogales in 2010, told me in an interview he heard from many people how they thought Rio Nuevo’s tax money was spent corruptly.

“Everybody had their own theory about what was going on. It’s different to have objective proof,” Jette said. “I’m saying there was a lot of hot air in this case.

“I know people have a negative idea about the city, but the city was nothing but open books to us. The Rio Nuevo board was nothing but open to us. Not a single person or institution gave us a single bit of guff.”

None of this is to say Rio Nuevo has been anything but an immense wasted opportunity for Tucson. We now have a flourishing downtown, but little credit goes to the $250 million spent by Rio Nuevo largely on studies and aborted plans.

The project originally came about in 1999 because Phoenix-area legislators needed some Southern Arizona votes in order to get tax-increment financing approved to fund a new Arizona Cardinals football stadium in Mesa. Voters in that city eventually rejected the plan, and a similar proposal in Scottsdale using TIF money went nowhere, but Tucson voters said yes.

That left Rio Nuevo, originally intended as a development project for the area west of the Santa Cruz and south of West Congress, as the only project left standing to get the flow of state sales tax money. Quickly city officials set it adrift from the original proposal for a set of museums and other projects west of the river.

The fact that we largely wasted the money is a huge shame, but that doesn’t make it criminal. It would compound the waste to keep paying attention to convoluted, back-door conspiracy theories on how we got here.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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