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PRAYING MANTIS: The feds have busted retired Tucson police detective Steve Muñoz and his wife, Emily Muñoz, principal of Grijalva Elementary School, trying to pin on them the entire rap of $615,000 in missing drug money.

A grand jury indicted Muñoz and his wife last week on multiple counts of embezzlement and false income tax returns. And the feds seek to enliven this case by alleging that Muñoz blew through big bags of these narco-bucks on gambling vacations in Las Vegas.

Here we go again.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Bob Miskell and Tom Fink prosecuted Judge William Scholl in 1996 on charges of filing false tax returns and structuring bank deposits in connection with Vegas and other gambling. Enjoined in court to such a degree that the judge addressed them at least once as Fiskell, they are now are big shots in the office. And once again, Tucson court watchers who have never set foot in Vegas casinos will learn the ins and outs of comps, bets, losses, ratings, shopping, dining and shows on The Strip. What is this attraction the feds have with Vegas?

The whole matter of missing MANTIS (Metropolitan Area Narcotics Trafficking Interdiction Squads) money is a cache of worms. Muñoz can't possibly be linked to all that is missing or all that was stolen. Too many people, too many hands, too many frightened defendants and too many witnesses coughing up money, jewelry and other hot items thinking it would actually be logged in.

It has been a messy matter, with cops and brass from various law enforcement agencies, including the Pima County Sheriff's Department, pointing fingers at TPD. Many thought TPD was dragging its feet or, worse, hoping that the whole thing would just go away so other members would not be tagged.

The arrest is a shock. Muñoz, 50, is a quiet, polite and friendly father and family man who was a seemingly dedicated cop. He graduated from Cholla High School, and his wife has received high marks for leading Grijalva Elementary.

If he took the money, he doesn't seem to have any of it left. He and his wife filed for bankruptcy. He's dangled in the wind without steady legal representation because, frankly, he can't afford it.

The indictment focuses on Muñoz and the period from October 1997 to April 2001, when $615,000 was seized in 52 cases for which Muñoz served as forfeiture officer.

Muñoz joined TPD in 1974 and retired in 2001. He was with MANTIS for eight years. The feds showed none of the courtesy extended to other defendants who are allowed to turn themselves in. They hauled in Muñoz from University Medical Center, where he works in security. It's surprising there was no "perp walk."


LAND RUSH: A battle over reforming the state trust land system looms for the legislative session that starts next month.

State trust land, which was established at statehood, is supposed to support various state beneficiaries (primarily education). Right now, the state owns about 10 million acres, which makes the Land Department the biggest land speculator in the state. Under Gov. Jane Dee Hull's state land department director, Michael Anable, the state started moving big parcels into the development pipeline in hopes of raising a lot of money for the state, with little worry for environmental concerns.

Gov. Janet Napolitano has slowed the land rush, but the underlying problem remains: When the state trust land program was established back in the early 20th century, planners weren't concerned about wildlife corridors or scenic open space. The land was essentially parceled out in a giant checkerboard pattern across the state.

Today, some state land is ideal for development, while other parcels are ecological jewels that should be preserved. But the current constitutional requirements are the same for both: Sell 'em off for the highest and best use, which is generally interpreted as high-density housing and commercial development.

About five years ago, state officials and other stakeholders started trying to figure out a way to reform the system so that some land could be set aside for preservation. Given the various interests involved--developers, educators, ranchers, environmentalists, the business community and others--it's been tough sledding. Educators, for example, don't want to see a lot of land set aside for preservation, because that would mean less money in their trust fund, while environmentalists don't want to see rich Sonoran Desert bladed and graded for more stucco subdivisions. Talk about your lousy options.

But a new compromise being shopped around appears to have the backing of many of the interested parties. The plan would allow some of those 10 million acres to be set aside for conservation, but there's one element that's splitting the environmental community: the issue of grazing leases for state land. A few years back, an environmental group won a lawsuit that gave the greens the right to competitively bid on grazing permits now held by ranchers.

Naturally, the ranchers aren't too happy about the competition--and, despite contributing next to nothing to the state's overall economic engine, they have a lot of juice with the Legislature. So to bring them on board, part of the reform package had to include a provision that essentially eliminates competitive bidding.

That turn of events has left some environmentalists, including the gang at the state Sierra Club, already opposing the plan. They fear that giving up that hard-fought win isn't worth the trade-off of protecting other state land.

The reform framework has come together too late for an initiative drive, so it looks like the only way it'll appear on next November's ballot is as a referendum from the Legislature. The big question: Can lawmakers resist the urge to screw the greens by tinkering with the plan before they agree to put it on the ballot?


WRAP PARTY: Give credit to the Eckstrom clan for not missing a beat, despite the death of matriarch Lupe T. Eckstrom, in organizing and staging--with a lot of help--the annual Christmas party last Thursday to wrap a mountain of gifts for Pascua Yaqui children. Some of that help came from Chris Gephardt, daughter of Richard Gephardt, the veteran congressman from Missouri who is making another run for the Democratic nomination for president.

Dan Eckstrom, three months into his retirement from the Pima County Board of Supervisors, is friendly with Gephardt, who forged a bond with U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor, the Phoenix Democrat who is part of the Eckstrom familia.


DEMOCRACY INACTION: Management at KXCI community radio (91.3 FM) and the station's board of directors continue to find ways to amaze, this time by wasting thousands of dollars for a "facilitator," Carl Moore, for a town hall meeting. KXCI will set the stage for Moore, coming all the way from New Mexico, for some kind of moan and groan in February.

General Manager Randy Peterson, in a "hasty" e-mail on Dec. 17, notified disc jockeys that "the facilitator who is expected to be hired by the Board to conduct our facilitated Town Hall this February/March is available to meet with deejays this Thursday (tomorrow!) at the station. (He's flying in for the day.) Nothing formal, but if you are available, I'm sure Carl would love to talk with you. ... Carl will be doing much more in-depth interviews and research regarding our difficulties/tension/ communications issues, etc. ..."

Wouldn't it just be cheaper to allow dissidents, including the Democracy Initiative that seeks to reform membership and board bylaws, a full say?

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