Caught on Tape: Massive Arizona Sting Forced Reforms

Politicians Caught on Tape

Nearly two decades ago, corruption appeared to be a fixture of the Arizona legislature. A sting run by local law enforcement captured the worst of it on undercover tapes.

Freshman state representative Sue Laybe counted bribe cash on camera. Senate Majority whip Carolyn Walker said $10,000 would get her out of debt, but decided to demand $15,000 for her vote. Before taking his own cut of illicit money, three-term representative Bobby Raymond summed up the prevailing cynicism by telling an undercover agent, "There isn't an issue in this world I give a s___ about. … I do deals."

In all, the investigations that came to be known as AzScam forced the resignation of an astounding 10 percent of the state legislature in 1991 and led to seven convictions of lawmakers, including those of Laybe, Walker and Raymond for bribery. Nineteen years later, however, good government advocates and Arizona officials hold the state out as a beacon of reform, Arizona is one of three states that have enacted sweeping "clean elections" laws that are meant to limit the influence of money in politics.

Politicians Caught on Tape
Politicians Caught on Tape

Arizona voters passed a package of clean-election reforms by a razor-thin margin in 1998. The purpose was to lessen the role of money, and its temptations, in the electoral process, and give more people the ability to run for office.

In Arizona, candidates who attract at least 220 five-dollar donations are eligible for public campaign funding. If they decide to accept the public funds, they have to pledge to forgo contributions from political action committees, businesses, corporations, political parties and labor unions. They're also limited in how much of their own money they can use to fund their campaigns. Candidates for the state legislature are capped at $640 in personal funds.

Partying Lawmaker Gropes Student Reporter
Partying Lawmaker Gropes Student Reporter

The public money that qualifying candidates use to mount their campaigns is raised through a surcharge tacked on to civil penalties and criminal fines.

Candidates can opt out of the system and use their own money and outside donations, but most members now serving in the Arizona legislature, as many as 62 percent, decided to run using public funds.

"When you run as a clean elections candidate," said Todd Lang, executive director of the state's Clean Elections Commission, "you're basically taking the public's trust."

Officials who were around during the bad old days remember how it used to be.

Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley, who prosecuted the corruption defendants back in 1991, says greed had overrun the state house.

"I think what had happened was Arizona had not been minding the till very well," he told ABC News. "There was this feeling, you know, that I can get away with it a little bit."

In a 1991 interview with ABC News, state representative Jim Hartdegen, who was convicted of taking three times the legal amount of campaign contributions from an undercover agent, described the allure of money.

"Money is such an important thing to a campaign, especially to a person like myself who doesn't have that much wherewithal financially," he said.

Clean Elections in Maine, Connecticut

That is no longer quite as true, said David Lujan, now a state representative, who was a legislative staffer during AzScam. "They have done a pretty good job of restricting the amount of money special interests can spend down here," said Lujan.

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