Tim Steller

Arizona Daily Star columnist Tim Steller

Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.

The Tucson Hispanic Chamber went from a modest business group to a prominent political player in the last decade, propelling some former leaders to high public positions.

But its apparent success masked financial problems that have become clear since Lea Marquez Peterson left as president and CEO last year, first to run for Congress, then to accept an appointment to the Arizona Corporation Commission.

It’s gotten bad enough that bills as small as $1,500, for an economic-development association membership fee, have gone unpaid. A fellow Tucson nonprofit even sued the Hispanic Chamber in April over a $13,500 unpaid bill for an event in December.

“They paid the $1,500 deposit,” Scott Marchand of the Pima Air and Space Museum told me. “They did a dine-and-dash on the $13,500 balance.”

The two sides are in negotiations to set up a payment plan, but it’s not the only debt, or the only payment plan. The chamber is also on a payment plan to pay back the Hilton El Conquistador for an event held at that resort last year.

Small-business owner Matt George, of Commotion Studios, told me via email, “They owe me money and have for about a year.” When I asked him to elaborate, he declined to give details but said, “I am the ‘small fry’ and definitely getting the short end of the stick.”

It’s not that unusual that a local nonprofit runs into financial problems, and in most cases it’s probably not newsworthy. But the Tucson Hispanic Chamber under Marquez Peterson became something of a juggernaut, expanding to Nogales, Sierra Vista and Douglas, growing to over 1,000 members. It was named the “chamber of the year” by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2013. And her role at the chamber ultimately made Marquez Peterson the first Latina to occupy a statewide elected office, when Gov. Doug Ducey appointed her to the commission, replacing Andy Tobin, in May.

The chamber made a profitable decision to ally with Ducey’s 2014 campaign, and after he won, the relationship grew even closer. In February 2015, Ducey hired Juan Ciscomani from his position as vice president of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber, making him director of the governor’s Tucson office. Ducey has given him increasing responsibilities, most recently elevating him to the position of senior advisor for regional and international affairs.

In May 2015, Ducey announced the creation of the Arizona Zanjeros, a group of CEOs and business leaders tasked with marketing Arizona to other business people. He named Michael Bidwill, president of the Arizona Cardinals, and Marquez Peterson as chairs. In December 2015, the Tucson Hispanic Chamber entered into a “strategic partnership” with the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, integrating their memberships and drawing Marquez Peterson closer to the heart of Ducey’s power center.

These moves raised the profiles of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber and of Marquez Peterson, but some discontent was brewing about the direction of the chamber, as it increasingly appeared more of a vehicle for the president’s prominence. Luis Parra, a Nogales attorney who left the chamber board in 2015, told me the group seemed to drift from its purpose.

“There came a point where I felt there wasn’t enough focus on the true mission of a chamber of commerce, which is to help entrepreneurs and startups. There was too much of a focus on growing the chamber as much as possible.”

Marquez Peterson took a leave from the chamber in August 2018, she told me, taking 50% of her salary ($113,300 in 2017) while she ran as the Republican candidate for Congress in Southeastern Arizona’s Congressional District 2. She stepped down altogether after losing the election.

When we talked Thursday night, Marquez Peterson denied responsibility for the chamber’s financial troubles.

“When I left the chamber, we were not in any tough financial situation,” she said. “We did not have lawsuits pending.”

When I asked the chamber board’s chair, Laura Oldaker, about the chamber’s financial situation, she made much the same point. Via email, she said, “We have experienced the ebbs and flows that any business organization undergoes. Our organization went through a dramatic change in leadership, and as a result, there have been learnings and course correction. We take ownership for that.”

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What Marquez Peterson said about lawsuits is true, but concerns about the chamber’s financial reporting and signs of trouble go back years. Priscilla Storm, a Diamond Ventures vice president who was on the board from 2011 to 2014, is a big fan of the chamber and its mission. But she told me via Facebook, “While on the Board, I routinely abstained from approving the monthly financial reports.” That might have been a warning sign.

More recent tax filings, and a memo from a new bookkeeper, also narrow down the time when the recent trouble really began. In the April 16 memo, headed “Status and Recommendations,” bookkeeper Melissa Armstrong reported to the chamber board that, “The financial health of THCC began to decline in 2015. Consulting costs dramatically increased while corporate sponsorships began to decline.” She also noted that the chamber had been paying for past events with new events, a bad practice she’s hoping to remedy.

The chamber’s 990 tax filings back up Armstrong’s analysis. Surging expenses turned the chamber’s net income from a positive $93,825 in 2014, to negative $64,998 in 2017. The debt-equity ratio, a common measure of a company or nonprofit’s financial health, went from a healthy 0.40 in 2014 and 2015 to an unhealthy 9.6 in 2017, raising doubts about the group’s ability to pay its bills. The 2018 tax filing is still not available.

Lydia Aranda stepped into this situation in 2018. First, she assumed the role of Laura Ciscomani, Juan’s wife, who had been the director of corporate sponsorships but was hired by the Arizona Chamber in June as its director of development. Then, in December, the Tucson Hispanic Chamber named Aranda its new CEO, replacing Marquez Peterson.

Things didn’t go well, and neither the board members nor Aranda would explain to me what exactly the problem was, but the financial troubles were becoming obvious. The Pima Air and Space Museum sued April 23.

“We made a lot of effort to work with them congenially to settle it up,” Marchand said. “We got a lot of runaround, some evasiveness, and they just went dark.”

Aranda is no longer on the job. Now Oldaker is trying to steer the chamber back to financial health. The board has hired Isabel Georgelos as administrator and is trying to reduce expenses, she said via email.

“Isabel is currently leading the Tucson Hispanic Chamber’s team, which we have downsized to a small strategic core team. We are focusing on continuing to support our small business members while strengthening our relationship with our sponsors and community partners. We have also reduced our events to a handful of signature events that serve our member base,” she said.

That’s good — it would serve the Tucson Hispanic Chamber to move beyond the delusions of grandeur that, in retrospect, marked Marquez Peterson’s tenure. Just as important, perhaps, will be to move beyond the rose-colored memories of her era to the recognition that it was not all that it seemed.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter.

Columnist

Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.