Sutton resigns after saying he wouldn't - Tucson Local Media: Import

Sutton resigns after saying he wouldn't

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Posted: Wednesday, May 4, 2005 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:50 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

May 4, 2005 - Concerned his indictment might interfere with town business, Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr. tendered his resignation April 30, saying it's in the best interest of his family and Marana for him to step away.

"I will not allow my situation to overshadow the important work of the town," Sutton said in a written statement released via e-mail, adding that he also needs to focus on his family and on fighting his legal battle.

Sutton, 35, and his close acquaintance, Richard "Rick" Westfall, 43, are each charged with one count of conspiracy and one count of attempted extortion in violation of federal law, carrying a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Westfall is charged with a third count of making false statements to an FBI agent.

A federal indictment released April 22 alleges Sutton unlawfully used his position as mayor to help Westfall try to gain a position and a lucrative contract from Waste Management Inc., the nation's largest trash hauler. Sutton and Westfall allegedly threatened to "blow the whistle" on overweight trash hauling by Waste Management subcontractors if Westfall didn't get a contract.

Sutton's resignation letter contradicts what he, along with his attorney, Michael Piccarreta, told an audience inside the town hall just two days before his resignation at a press conference April 28. He said, then, that he was going to retain his elected position.

"The people of Marana elected me to do a job. I do that job with great passion for each and every resident of this community and I'll continue to do so," Sutton said at that press conference, adding that he planned to plead not guilty to charges this week in U.S. District Court.

Sutton confirmed his resignation during an interview with the EXPLORER earlier this week and explained what changed his mind in such a short time.

"Just talking to my wife and figuring out I have a full-time job, I own a business and the time I'm going to need to prepare for this fight, that's the extra time I usually put to Marana … it just wouldn't be fair," Sutton said. "That's not being an effective leader … there's just too much business to be done."

Vice Mayor Herb Kai said he met with Sutton on the afternoon of April 29 when Sutton announced his intention to resign and thinks his decision is the right choice.

"From our conversation, what he indicated was that it was a tough decision and he and his wife and family did some soul searching," he said. "I think he was just trying to act in the best interest of the town."

Kai said he was surprised that Sutton resigned and called his actions "unexpected." However, Councilman Tim Escobedo said Sutton's resignation wasn't a surprise.

"This was expected," he said. "It's not something that came out of the blue. He put a lot of thought into it and, Bobby being Bobby, he did what's best for the community."

Escobedo said the lingering questions about why the council was supporting Sutton and why council members authorized paying his legal bills had possibly begun to reflect negatively on the council.

Council members unanimously voted April 26 in support of an indemnification agreement that will allow the town to pay Sutton's legal fees pending his acquittal. Town Attorney Frank Cassidy said the town is obligated to the agreement regardless of Sutton's resignation.

On the afternoon of Sutton's resignation, about 84 percent of nearly 300 people in an online poll at www.explorernews.com said they thought Sutton should resign.

"There was a lot of pressure from the community and we have to do what's best for the community," Escobedo said.

But Sutton said that tension in the community wasn't the deciding factor that swayed his decision.

"It's just too big of a distraction, and basically what it came to was my wife and I talking and saying I'm going to need this extra time," he said.

However, some speculated that a Continental Ranch Little League governing board meeting that took place April 28, the same day as the press conference, added to the unrest in the community.

Sources at that meeting said nearly 70 people, mostly parents, showed up after catching wind that Sutton's ability to manage a Continental Ranch Little League team was on the agenda. Town employees, including Marana Parks and Recreation Director Ron Smith, also attended the meeting.

After a period of contention that some said included screaming and profanities, board members voted unanimously not to remove Sutton. Some said they were concerned Sutton was coaching a Little League baseball game in Continental Ranch two nights before on the same night the Town Council voted to pick up his legal fees.

"I just feel that all that was there was the community's support for Bobby," said Smith, whose own children have been coached by Sutton in previous years.

Sutton, who has managed and coached baseball for six years, said it was "very heartwarming to know we have that support," and the meeting didn't play a role in his decision to resign.

Kai said the council will consider filling the vacancy left by Sutton at the May 17 council meeting. In the meantime, Kai will assume mayoral duties.

According to town code, council members must pass a majority vote to appoint a current council member to the mayor's seat. That council member must then resign his or her seat and assume full duties as mayor.

Anyone interested in filling the opening council position must submit an application and resumé to the town clerk, who will distribute materials to council members for purposes of making an appointment.

Council members were hesitant to comment on who might fill the mayor vacancy, but Escobedo said he would not. Councilman Ed Honea declined to comment on the matter.

"Nobody has had a lot of time to have a lot of deep thought on this. It happened so quickly," he said, adding that nobody had asked the mayor to resign, either.

"It was his choice and he did what he thought would work best for him at this time," Honea said. "He was in a very precarious situation and he's got a lot of things he needs to take care of."

Sutton said it will be up to the council to decide who fills his roles in the Pima Association of Governments and the Regional Transportation Authority, where he served as vice chairman. Sutton said his resignation will effectively remove him from all of his public duties, adding, "I will be out of politics for a while."

Former Councilwoman Roxanne Ziegler, who sat on the dais with Sutton from 1997 to 2001, said she thought his resignation was the right thing to do, because, whether he's guilty or innocent, the case is still a weight on his shoulders.

"I'm glad to see he stepped down, but we were all in there Thursday," she said, commenting on the press conference where Sutton said he was going to continue as mayor. "I wonder what changed between then and today. It's interesting."

Honea said Sutton has been on the council for 10 years and he wanted to continue to work for the people in the community, but maybe after further introspection it's better to go the other way.

Sutton appeared glum at last week's press conference as he read from a written statement before a small crowd of reporters.

"I would like to again state my complete innocence in this matter. This was a whistleblower case, very simple. And the facts of that will eventually prove that to be true," Sutton said.

"You will learn that this is a government-created crime, not a crime that the government discovered," said Piccarreta, Sutton's attorney. "You will learn that the FBI was involved in orchestrating, with Waste Management, to create this situation to have repeated contacts with Mayor Sutton to try and make him say certain things."

Steve Madison, Waste Management's attorney in the matter, said Piccarreta and Sutton's statements are a disservice to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice, which worked hard on the case.

Madison, a former federal prosecutor, said the level of review to bring such an indictment against an elected official is incredibly rigorous and shouldn't be taken lightly. Sutton's case took three years to bring, following an FBI investigation that began in 2002.

"The moment Waste Management believed it was potentially being victimized, it made a decision to report that to the appropriate authority," Madison said. "Waste Management reported what they saw was criminal activity and it was investigated exhaustively."

Piccarreta said the difference between Sutton's case and most other Hobbs Act cases is that Sutton didn't stand to gain anything financially in the dealings with Waste Management.

"This is a situation of a public official assisting a constituent who has been wronged by a wrongdoer, and the wrongdoer is Waste Management," he said. "When we talk about who has the dirty hands in this situation … you're going to find that the dirty hands are going to be Waste Management and the government."

Madison disagreed with Piccarreta by saying there are many Hobbs Act cases where corrupt politicians have used third parties as "middle men," a practice known in legal circles as "layering."

"That's a pretty time-honored way to do it, to have the money not go directly through the elected official," Madison said, adding that currently pending is a case involving a city treasurer in a Los Angeles suburb who is accused of taking bribes through third parities.

Madison, himself, as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles from 1987 to 1996, worked mostly public corruption cases and successfully prosecuted a case almost identical to Sutton's.

That case involved U.S. Congressman Walter Tucker, who was coincidentally convicted of extorting bribes from a waste hauler during the time he was mayor of Compton.

"This is why I know how rigorous these investigations are," Madison said. "The same defense was raised there."

Tucker's defense at the time was that he had been targeted in "a highly organized conspiracy by the government." Piccarreta has offered a similar defense to charges against Sutton, calling it a "government-created crime."

Tucker was eventually convicted of nine felony counts - seven counts of extortion and two counts of tax evasion - for accepting and demanding bribes in 1991 and 1992.

Commenting on the mass amounts of evidence compiled against Sutton, Piccarreta said, the FBI taped many of Sutton's conversations with Waste Management, and the court will have to look at them in their entirety - not just what's included in the indictment.

However, the indictment shows numerous statements that suggest Sutton was willing to "gag" Westfall from reporting any illegal overweight hauling in exchange for a contract for Westfall worth as much as $60,000 a month. Sutton is even shown in the indictment making financial arrangements for money to be transferred to a bank account for Westfall.

When asked to explain, Piccarreta simply said it's "a long story."

"In terms of what action, should of, would of, could have been taken, we'll present all that in court," he said.

"If you take snippets of any one of our daily conversations, you can make that snippet create an impression that the totality of the situation was different than the reality was," he said. "What I'm sad about is that there are some conversations that proceeded the taping that they don't have taped and I think those will become critical to understanding the case."

Madison said the tape recordings are comprehensive and Piccarreta's arguments will be for a jury to review.

"I would personally view very suspiciously the notion that, with all the tapes, there's one statement or one conversation that wasn't recorded and that's the one that proves it (Sutton's innocence)," Madison said.

Piccarreta said there is one conversation in which he believes the FBI attempted to contact Sutton and pretended to be Waste Management, stating, in case of an investigation, "Let's get our stories together."

"Mayor Sutton's response, I think, opened the window to his mind and heart because he basically told them, 'There's no story. If the FBI looks into this, we'll tell them the truth,'" Piccarreta said. "I think that speaks volumes to what was … his state of mind while this was occurring."

Piccarreta added that Sutton's state of mind will be a large part of his defense, including answering the question: Why was he doing it?

"What's undisputed was that he was not doing anything for personal benefit. There was no financial dog in the fight for Mr. Sutton," Piccarreta said, adding that Sutton's primary concern was helping a constituent with a public safety concern regarding the overweight trucks.

"We do intend to show that there was a problem, there was a continuing problem, and, importantly, that Mayor Sutton believed it was a necessity to intervene," he said.

Commenting on whether it was a conflict of interest for Sutton to demand a generous contract for a close friend, Piccarreta said, "Conflict of interest is a term of art. I don't think it's a conflict of interest to help a citizen that's been wronged."

Piccarreta said he thinks it's a mayor's duty to get involved with constituents' personal matters with corporate employers, though he didn't explain how it was in the best interest of the town.

"As to each and every reason, I'm not going to go into (that) today, but I think public officials should involve themselves in problems of their citizens with corporate entities and especially when they're wrong," he said.

Sutton apologized to reporters for having been out of town much of the time since the indictment was released, but said it's going to be "back to business as usual" with the grand opening of the Marana Municipal Complex this week. However, his resignation two days later indicates otherwise.

Much of Sutton's work in the past several years has built toward the opening of the multistory complex, in which he would have had his own third-floor office inside a lavish, multimillion-dollar Town Hall that dwarfs the old building next door.

Council members were expected to celebrate the grand opening of the complex May 3 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and fireworks in conjunction with the first meeting in the new council chambers. Printed in the invitations is Sutton's name, but Kai assumed duties of leading the ribbon cutting instead.

Escobedo said he couldn't imagine being in Sutton's shoes right now.

"It's a tough road and I definitely feel for Bobby and his family," he said. "He needs to concentrate on his case and that's going to take a lot of time and he's not going to be able to give the town 100 percent until this case is settled."

Sutton indicated in an interview that he plans to return to Marana politics if the case goes his way.

"We got a fight in front of us and we're going to get prepared for it. Sometimes it's not easy to do the right thing, but were going to prove we did that and we'll come out OK in the end," he said.

"Once I get this done, I'll serve in whatever capacity the town wants me to serve in and I'll always be there for the citizens."

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