Journalists’ Roundtable

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Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon's" Journalists' Roundtable. Susan Bitter Smith resigns from the Arizona corporation commission. And a state board of education official resigns over errors in teacher misconduct records. The Journalists' Roundtable is next on "Arizona Horizon."

Announcer: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon's" Journalists' Roundtable, I'm Ted Simons Joining us tonight, Mary Jo Pitzl of the Arizona republic. Jeremy Duda of the Arizona capitol times. And Luige Del Puerto, also from the Arizona capitol times. Susan Bitter Smith resigns from the Arizona corporation commission, her resignation effective January 4th. Was this a surprise?

Mary Jo Pitzl: I think ultimately not her resignation but the timing because she announced her resignation the day after her attorney had filed a response to the attorney general's brief, seeking the Supreme Court to remove her from that office and so up until the day before this, she was fighting.

Ted Simons: She was fighting. Obviously, under pressure. Give us a quick overview of all the problems.

Jeremy Duda: She was the lobbyist for a cable television industry group, a lot of that salary was paid for by cox communications, which is regulated not on the cable TV side but by the Corporation Commission. People felt like that was a conflict of interest that violated state law because there's some very specific laws that apply to the Corporation Commission. Quasi-judicial body. Attorney general Brnovich very much agreed and filed papers with the Supreme Court saying we want you to boot her out of office.

Ted Simons: And again, the attorney files the day before she resigned. What's going on?

Luige Del Puerto: Well, yeah, that really was a puzzle and that's why the timing was a surprise. A couple of weeks ago, at the moment that the attorney general said I'm going to go after you, I'm going to seek you removal from office, there was this sentiment that at some point she was going to be forced out of the Corporation Commission. But the fact that her lawyer had filed this very lengthy response to the attorney general's filing showed that maybe she was in this for the long haul and, of course, the very next day, Rachel, one of our reporters went there. We were quite blind sided by her resignation that day.

Mary Jo Pitzl: There was pressure on her. Within hours I think after attorney general Brnovich filed his petition, I forget what the formal name of it is called. The Republican party chairman Robert Graham was suggesting that Ms. bitter smith think about the good of the party and the good of the commission. So there was some pressure on her to just sort of let's get this cleaned up and get it behind us.

Jeremy Duda: One of the interesting things about filing her response to Brnovich the day for she resigned and she said I think this case should go forward, we'll let the facts play out, let the public see an exoneration and Brnovich basically said it's a bunch of stuff. She knows full well that the case is certainly not going to go forward now, because the entire purpose was to force her out of office.

Ted Simons: It was interesting to say she wants the case to go forward. But there's no case anymore.

Luige Del Puerto: In order to have a dispute, you need two parties to be fighting each other. In this case she's already giving up and therefore, there's no dispute. In fact, attorney general mark Brnovich said today they will be filing a motion to the Supreme Court saying we are withdrawing our petition seeking her removal, conditioned upon her actually resigning from office.

Ted Simons: Conditioned upon her actually going ahead and doing this.

Mary Jo Pitzl: I think one thing that this will do is this has been known, bitter smith has been a lobbyist for the telecommunications for the cable TV association for a long time. And hopefully, this will lead to more scrutiny of candidates when they run for office. She was in her third year in office.

Ted Simons: I was going to say. Will -- will people start paying more attention to the Corporation Commission? In the past people went there as a way to get out of the limelight a little bit and do some busy work but goodness, gracious, somebody's got to start paying attention.

Jeremy Duda: People are paying attention now. We used to go years without talking about the Corporation Commission. There's so much scrutiny because of the dark money into these campaigns, there's so many eyes on this now, including this group the checks and balances project which we learned is largely funt by one of the largest solar companies in the country. and they're the ones who initially brought this information forward, information that's been known for a while but they publicized it.

Luige Del Puerto: And the public really should be paying attention to the Corporation Commission because this entity is so important. The things that they regulate directly affect our wallets. They regulate telephone services, they regulate security, they regulate, you know, electricity. And whenever -- whatever they decide could mean you'll have more money for the month or less money for the month. People should pay attention to the Corporation Commission, and I think that's starting to happen.

Ted Simons: You mentioned she resigned, a lot of pressure for her to resign, a lot of push from the Republicans especially. Was anyone in her corner saying stay out there and fight this?

Mary Jo Pitzl: I'm not aware.

Jeremy Duda: Bob stump probably. He showed a lot of support for her throughout this, put on a statement on Facebook at least expressing his support for her. So she's got at least one champion in her corner.

Ted Simons: You need more than one don't you?

Luige Del Puerto: You really need people to rally around you and say this is politically motivated, there's no basis for it. And we haven't really seen that kind of support for her.

Ted Simons: So who will the governor put in there to fill out the rest of the term and go ahead run again? Perhaps, I don't know.

Luige Del Puerto: That really is the question right now, who will the governor appoint to replace her? We talked to several sources in the capitol community and a couple of names had been floated. One of them is Andy Tobin. An agency director. Another is Ted Vogt, people who had been interested in running for the Corporation Commission or as I've mentioned earlier, a few other familiar faces if you will. Another is Al Melvin and, in fact, he told us today that he is quite interested in getting the appointment and he thinks he's the best person for the job.

Mary Jo Pitzl: The governor is giving Andy tobin a dual appointment. He's going to at least temporarily take over direction for the state department of financial institutions. I think there's some speculation that this might lead to a merger of these two agencies, just as when he was appointed head of weights and measures, that got broken into component parts.

Luige Del Puerto: And I should mention these are just names being floated, this is pure speculation. However, one source told me that the question to ask is not who the governor will appoint but rather what does the governor want to accomplish in this appointment? Does he want to put somebody in there that would put -- contribute to a little bit more stability into what seems like a very chaotic, you know, place at this point? Or does the governor want to appoint someone who would be continuing the job, which means appoint someone electable to a statewide office and somebody who will running next year?

Jeremy Duda: There might be some pressure on the governor to appoint place holders. One of the only people who has filed to run for this so far is rhett gray, a legislature from the west valley. A city legislator cannot be appointed for this. Three of these seats will be up for election next year, two of them will be open now.

Luige Del Puerto: And the governor does have a vast network of people outside the capitol. He's a businessman. He could tap this business network and get somebody completely outside of the capitol community.

Jeremy Duda: Sure but perhaps one of the biggest questions would be where is this appointee going to fall in this long running fight, which is the genesis of all of this? Governor Ducey has some ties to folks who are close to aps. Sean nobles, I think there's a lot of speculation that he'll appoint someone who's more favorable to the aps side.

Ted Simons: All right, let's keep it moving here. Board of education, chief investigator for teacher misconduct. We talked in the past now that those records didn't quite all go where they were supposed to. He resigns after 10 years in the office, something like that?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Yes, and sometime after this revelation was made, and submitted his resignation to the board of education who supervises him and off he goes, and now, we have -- I don't know if this is going to open up the door for further dispute between the board of education and school superintendent Diane Douglas but somebody's got to fill that role and make sure that background investigations of teachers and other administrators, you know, is done properly and conveyed, a lot of this was not forwarded on so that it could be useful in the hiring process.

Ted Simons: 79 cases, everything from drunk on the job to sexual problems, all sorts of things between teachers and some of these folks are still in the database or still in the database?

Jeremy Duda: Superintendent Douglas says none of those folks have been fired, we've at least avoided that and you mentioned further conflict. It sounds like this is already a source of new conflict for Douglas and the board because, you know, she has this long running fight over who has control over these employees and she says this is exactly what I'm talking about. This is why I should have control over the board and its employees. I would run this better, this won't happen anymore. This all predates her tenure.

Luige Del Puerto: So what happened essentially is this information -- so the investigators aren't exactly the ones investigating the teachers. They are being investigated by local law enforcement, for example. Some of them are presumably already in jail. What happened is the investigators or the board of education had failed to put that information into the state and federal database, which means that when you look at the teacher who could be in jail right now, his certificate would still be valid and the department of education said none of them had been hired which is a very good thing. Jeremy's exactly right. Diane Douglas is showing this and saying look, I should be the one doing this thing. I should be the one running this thing. I could do a better job. I could be more efficient.

Ted Simons: It seems like every time we talk about Diane Douglas and the rift with the board of education we say is this going to lead to legislation to finally put some clarification, lines of demarcation?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Haven't heard much talk about that and we've lost chairman of the Senate education committee, speaking of resignations this week, Kelli Ward's resignation took effect as she goes off to give all her attention to running against John McCain for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate. So I haven't seen anything delineating board of Ed versus the school superintendent in some of the early bills that have been filed already but we've got another month.

Luige Del Puerto: And there is some interest on getting this thing clarified. The legislators really want to make sure that to a certain extent the technical side of it is resolved, they should pass a law that defines very clearly where the powers of the two entities are.

Jeremy Duda: And they had that bill last year. It looked like it was kind of cruising to passage and then everything fell apart. I get the feeling that people are going to give a little more attention to that this upcoming session given everything that's happened since that bill collapsed.

Ted Simons: We're going to get to Kelli Ward again in a second here because there's kind of an adjunct story. In our conflict resignation kind of theme, no resignation here but the department of child safety rebuked by lawmakers, jlbc, what was going on here?

Jeremy Duda: Someone whose resignation some folks in the capitol would certainly like to see. Greg McKay the director of the department of child safety, they had a jlbc hearing the other day, joint legislative budget committee, the department was supposed to submit a report that was 2 ½ months later, the director did not show up on his own to report this. Kind of predictably bad news for dcs as we've seen seeing and the committee just excoriated him and passed a bipartisan motion, introduced by a Democrat, Steve Farley, that's how angry some of the Republicans are over there, a vote of no confidence and it doesn't mean anything but it really shows how much anger and frustration there is over there with how this agency has been running.

Ted Simons: And this was a regularly scheduled kind of review to see how certain departments are doing and dcs up now and why didn't he show up for this?

Mary Jo Pitzl: His spokesperson says that he had notified jlbc staff, I'm a little unclear if it was staff or the lawmakers themselves that he would not be there. But certainly cochairman Justin olson was very surprised, said the director wasn't there and they usually show up for these things. This was quarterly benchmarks and to understand some of it might after a while become pro forma but dcs is new and 18 months ago they had the special session and all of this concentrated attention, we're going to make this new agency, we're going to right the ship, we're going to protect the kids and do right by the kids in Arizona and the numbers you know, the trend lines that we know right now are still the back log is bigger from what they reported, the case worker numbers are down, and we're at 19,000 plus children living out of their homes so if they're not going in the right direction and plus lawmakers put a lot of money, you know, extra money into this and were aghast to learn that the computer system, which is sort of the heart of how to make all of this work, the update to that won't be done until 2018 I think.

Luige Del Puerto: Are and that really goes to the heart of the frustration with lawmakers because the state is spending a whole lot of money. This is going to be the salvation of the kids. It is supposed to be the one entity that since it's new, it's a new mandate,it's a fresh start, if you will, that some things would be righted. In fact, what we're saying is just because you created new bureaucracy doesn't mean you're solving a problem you're meant to solve and really the problem is there are -- it's a very complicated situation but the problem is that there are so many kids that are -- there are so many cases of neglect and abuse and there are not a whole lot of case workers and those case workers are very overburdened. That is one of the biggest problems that they face.

Ted Simons: All right.

Jeremy Duda: Remember the child safety is also going to be asking for a lot more money in this upcoming session.

Ted Simons: I hope he shows up for that one, the particular effort?

Jeremy Duda: He may but I don't know how willing some of these legislators are going to be to give over this new money based on what we've been hearing from them.

Mary Jo Pitzl: And to put this into context, there was a jlbc meeting in October that director McKay did attend and that one didn't go very well. So lawmakers convene again, it's more bad news. It's just -- the tension was palpable.

Ted Simons: You had mentioned earlier that Kelli Ward was leaving the legislature to focus on her race against senator John McCain. Will she be focusing her race on someone else as well?

Jeremy Duda: It's possible. For months we've been hearing rumors about whether or not Congressman David schweikert ruled himself out. The rumors have been bubbling back up. I'm hearing from my sources that he's going to closer, maybe even leaning towards it, talking to folks in D.C. who might be able to help him raise some money and this is -- schweikert is a candidate that a lot of the conservatives want, this is who they've always wanted. Ward has the support of these folks but most people, a lot of folks aren't really viewing her as a serious threat to McCain. What warren is saying now if he gets in, she's past the point of no return. He had two weeks advanced notice. She's not going to get out if that happens. It will be a three way race.

Luige Del Puerto: And that really is the question for Kelli Ward. Do you keep fighting and split the vote and let John McCain win or make it easier for him to win or do you sacrifice yourself and say for the conservative cause, I'm stepping aside and letting somebody like David schweikert with a bigger name, presumably someone who could raise more money and let him do the fighting on behalf of the conservatives.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Runner -- aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself? I think schweikert's wife ruled him out for running for the seat. And the couple just adopted a child. They have an infant.

Luige Del Puerto: What we're hearing is that one of the reasons that schweikert was reluctant presumably, we don't really know, presumably reluctant to get into the race is because they were going through the adoption process, and now that the process has been completed, and presumably he's free to do what he wants.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Like be an absentee dad?

Multiple people: No, no -- [ Overlapping Speakers ]

Ted Simons: But things are going to be very stable if you decide to run against John McCain. You don't have to leave home at all. Why is he even, considering this?

Jeremy Duda: McCain is viewed as vulnerable. If you look at the polling, he's such a big name but you look at the polling and his approval ratings are down, a lot of people feel he's vulnerable. Schweikert might be that guy.

Ted Simons: And dave schweikert would be the right candidate?

Luige Del Puerto: A lot of conservatives here and nationally are saying if David schweikert decides to run, he would be the best candidate to take on John McCain. And, you know, just because -- there are young families, young couples who are in the legislature and Congress and Ron Paul, the same issue when he was being courted to run for speaker but you know, the thing is you could run and still have a newly adopted baby.

Mary Jo Pitzl: And I think the -- I mean, there is discontent in conservative quarters with McCain and people want a candidate who they think has a good chance of taking him out and schweikert these guys have said is seen as having that potential.

Luige Del Puerto: And I meant to say Paul Ryan, not Ron Paul.

Ted Simons: Wow. Speaking of candidates, you know who stopped at Phoenix Mesa gateway airport today in his own jet, spoke to thousands of cold but enthusiastic -- Donald Trump is not going away.

Jeremy Duda: Right after the debate and the debates aren't where he shines. He shines at these rallies, about 3,100 people attended, 7,000 according to his campaign, but it was trump in all his glory in his own private plane with the music from the movie Air Force one playing as he stepped off the plane and it was mostly the same things we've been hearing from trump for six months since he got into the race. He's going to build a wall, New Mexico is pay for it, we're going to name it after me and his momentum, notwithstanding with polls in Iowa, his momentum still doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

Ted Simons: Introduced by Joe Arpaio. We keep reading that the national Republican establishment can't wait to find someone to move trump off the stage. Is it the same way in Arizona or is the Arizona Republican party happy? I saw Joe Arpaio and treasurer Jeff dewit. I think Kelli Ward was there, as well. I didn't see anybody else.

Luige Del Puerto: We were asking treasurer Dewit, sent him a message, and I think one of my colleagues tried to get a hold of him. Are you a supporter of Donald Trump and presumably since he was there and he was also at the debate, CNN debate the other day, presumably he is but we don't really know. To answer your question, I think it's the same here's it is nationally. I think our establishment Republicans are very fearful of Donald Trump and they think that if Donald Trump wins the nomination, which if the trend holds he will, it's going to be the end of the party's bid for the White House because people are saying there's no way he can beat Hillary Clinton. But there are a huge chunk of Republicans in the state that are very happy with Donald Trump. They think that he is expressing you know, the views, the very heart of what people are feeling right now and, you know, expresses them very well.

Mary Jo Pitzl: I think there's been a shift with some of the establishment Republicans because when trump came here back in July, I think we had Governor Ducey and I can't remember the chairman of the party and our two senators, you know, saying bad news, not a good idea. They were not supportive of Trump. This time around, the governor didn't have anything to say and McCain and flake spoke and said this is not our candidate. So there's some hesitance to go after trump. He's maintained this lead for months.

Ted Simons: I was going to say if he did go after trump at this late stage so to speak, you have to kind of wonder if it's a wise political thing to do anymore because he does seem to have rallied in the Republican party a pretty strong base.

Jeremy Duda: Sure and if you go after trump, trump is going to go after you. We saw the huge spat that he and John McCain got in earlier this year. 100 years ago when we said that's going to end his campaign and obviously, it hasn't. He loves picking fights with people. He loves getting criticized because then he gets to fire back which he's very good at.

Ted Simons: All right, before we go, I don't know if this is such a political story but as someone who has frequented four peaks brewery and loves the food there, they serve beer there as well but I love it. Anyway, sold to Anheuser-Busch. And kind of sad because it was a home-grown mom and pop Arizona based, and now it's part of the biggest beer brewer in the world. The governor comes out and says this is what did he call it, truly an Arizona success story and the American dream in action. Is there a little bit of a tin ear there because I don't want hear from anyone who thinks this is a good thing for Arizona.

Luige Del Puerto: I think his description of success is that if you build a company, it reaches a certain point where it gets the attention of in this case the biggest brewery in the world, you know, if it gets the attention of something as big as that, it is a success story. I tell you what this news shocked the capital community. And there are a lot of people that are not happy about it. At least that's what we're hearing. They're not happy about it because this is supposed to be, you know -- the idea of a craft brewery is it's supposed to be independent, it's supposed to be small, it's supposed to be able to pay more attention to details.

Ted Simons: But it's Arizona. I mean, it's like America west. Everything we start here just gets swallowed up and we can't be a base for anything. We're like the corner office.

Jeremy Duda: Which tends to happen when folks get successful and I think he sees a lot of himself in this. He started off running a chain of ice cream stores in the valley, a few stores and that turned into this massive international chain, and then he did the same. Sold it to a larger company and cashed out.

Mary Jo Pitzl: I think it also, though, has rafe questions. We had the beer bill the last session that everybody thought was going to be the big fight. It wasn't a big fight and it was designed to allow some of these smaller brewers to still produce and not hit certain production caps. That all got reconfigured and the main beneficiary of that is now going to the other side, to the big corporate side.

Ted Simons: To the dark side.

Jeremy Duda: They did the bill signing ceremony at four peaks.

Ted Simons: All right. I guess that's it. Thanks for being here. We appreciate it. That's it for now, I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening and a great weekend.

Announcer: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

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