Here Are Some Sordid Reasons To Throw Jim Kolbe Out Of Congress.
By Emil Franzi
TUCSON'S DAILY journalists have prattled about the closing of the Tucson Rod & Gun Club shooting range in Sabino Canyon due to "safety considerations." They've reported the U.S. Forest Service has acted in good faith. Tucson Weekly readers know better. Smokey was--and still is--a lying sonofabitch.
Gullible treehuggers, anti-gun zealots, and even some TR&G Club members who still believe the Forest Service game is on the level need to check out the facts. This is about land speculators, their sleazy land trades, a corrupt bureaucracy, and a Congressman who has become their number-one water boy in Arizona. Follow the money.
In a recent series the Seattle Times has outlined a multitude of land-trade scams proving that U.S. officials are not only liars, but corrupt. All over the West, developers are running roughshod over taxpayers and environmentalists by dumping what they don't want in trade for what they do with the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other federal agencies.
The appraisals used by the Forest Service and other federal agencies are so bad that the Inspector General of the Department of Agriculture, the cabinet department which oversees the Forest Service, told the Seattle Times, "Many of these trades are a personal affront to every American ...The only real loser in these things is the taxpayer."
In Washington, the Forest Service has traded old-growth timber for clear-cut land. In Colorado, officials traded prime land near a development, and the beneficiary immediately sold the new piece for a $3 million profit. In Nevada, a Forest Service official accepted vacations and gifts from a trade participant. At Lake Tahoe, they swapped $38 million in land near Vegas for 46 acres of lakefront complete with a 10,000-square-foot mansion still being used by private interests as a bed and breakfast. In another instance, according to the Times, officials traded forest land for four homes within a subdivision. In Arkansas, a massive trade went down without any appraisal. The Forest Service and related agencies are almost as sleazy as the Amphi School District.
According to the Times, most of these deals are cut in secret and the appraisals are not released to the public until after they're final. And the appraisals consistently undervalue government land and inflate private holdings. A high Forest Service official concedes that their policy isn't about preservation, it's about "improving land management." The same official also told the Seattle Times, "It's better to get land than trees."
In Colorado some of these deals reeked so bad that even a Conservative Republican Congressman, Scott McGinnis, a property-rights advocate, called for an investigation by the U.S. Attorney.
IN SOUTHERN ARIZONA, our local Congressman, Jim Kolbe, has different outlook. He's helped run the plays for land speculators in the past, and he appears to be doing it again when it comes to the Tucson Rod & Gun Club.
One Kolbe-supported deal involved a land swap within the Interior Department--a swap which has many of the same problems and patterns as the Forest Service trades. The Seattle Times series features legendary Tucson land speculator Don Diamond--and describes Kolbe as "supported by Diamond."
That trade involved 1,950 acres that were to become part of Saguaro National Park, and a 60-acre parcel owned by the Bureau of Reclamation on the border between Phoenix and Scottsdale. The large piece was part of Diamond's proposed Rocking K development, and it was Kolbe who ran the play to acquire it through Congress, either by purchase or land trade.
In 1994, federal appraisers valued the 60-acre piece near the corner of Scottsdale and Bell roads at $10 million, maybe as much as $16 million. The feds then appraised Diamond's land at $6.8 million. Rocking K's Chris Monson said he didn't think the federal piece was worth more than $5 million.
Then, mysteriously, private appraisers suddenly replaced the federal employees. For the task of re-evaluating Diamond's parcel, the feds chose a private reappraiser whom the Seattle Times states is known by government officials as "High Val Al." Good ol' Al put the value of the Rocking K piece at $22 million. The Scottsdale land was appraised at $5 million--Monson's amount--by another private appraiser, Robert Francey
The final trade was completed in 1995. Diamond gave up only 430 acres and got the commercial site in Phoenix--plus $1 million in cash. The federal appraiser who fought the deal, Robert Grijalva, was fired for "insubordination" after 20 years of service. The Scottsdale land is now worth about $40 million, according to the Seattle Times' study of recent sales of some portions of the property.
Kolbe's role in this ripoff is murky, but the Seattle Times states, "Grijalva was seen as an obstacle to federal officials who--under pressure from a Tucson Congressman who sits on the House Appropriations Committee--wanted the deal to go through smoothly."
"I don't know how accurate those stories are," Kolbe told The Weekly. "Obviously, I don't have anything to do with the appraisals, who does the appraisals, or who those people are. I've never even heard of any those people, I've never met them, never talked to any of them, I've never talked to any of the agencies about how the appraisals are done. The only thing I ever did was prod them to get moving with the exchanges. Certainly the taxpayers ought to get their money's worth. There's no reason they should be shortchanged. We should have appraisals that are fair, correct and the taxpayers should get every dollar's worth."
But unlike his Colorado colleague, Kolbe certainly didn't call for an investigation by the U.S. Attorney.
Diamond and friends scored again three years later when they traded about 700 acres on Tucson's west side for 4,300 acres of BLM land near Peoria. Again enter "High Val Al" to set the price for Diamond's land. Another private appraiser, Con Engelhorn of Phoenix, appraised the BLM land so low that even Rocking K's Monson thought so, according to the Times. That Diamond still had a friend on the House Appropriations Committee no doubt wasn't forgotten. Grijalva and others estimate that Diamond made about $3 million on this trade.
THE ROD & GUN Club saga would appear to be more of the same. Government records prove that for some time the Forest Service has been trying to run off the club. The prime movers in this operation have been a group of land speculators operating near the site. One is peddling estate lots for almost a half million dollars that he bought for $150,000. And the Chairman of Friends of Sabino Canyon has major real-estate interests in the area, and contributed the maximum to Kolbe's re-election campaign this year. His prior recent political involvement was to make similar contributions to Democrat Sam Coppersmith in 1994 and the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996, so his recent hug-fest with Kolbe is hardly due to a partisan motivation.
The Forest Service's so-called "safety study" of the Gun Club was as shabby as many of the agency's land appraisals. But this time, in place of rigged appraisers they brought in a dolt named Shumsky whose highest academic achievement was a high-school GED. The Shumsky report and its many frauds were exposed exclusively by the Tucson Weekly at the time. But there was one further element of fraud we missed:
While interviewing Sabino Canyon residents who live near the range, Shumsky included three supposed land owners who aren't. They're salesmen who are selling land for one of the other speculators with big holdings next door to the Gun Club.
After ignoring the problem until the Forest Service had acted to close the range based on the fraudulent Shumsky report, Kolbe then held a "town hall" meeting to discuss the future of the Tucson Rod & Gun Club. The few stray hikers and treehuggers who spoke against the Club never noticed that they were props for a group of land speculators.
At that meeting, one of the "nearby residents" who claimed bullets were whizzing past his windows stated that if his child were harmed, Kolbe would have "blood on his hands." This speaker is the same guy selling the nearby half-million dollar lots. Another who spoke as a hiker and bird watcher is the real-estate attorney for the developer who contributed to Kolbe. Whether Kolbe knew he was being used or was part of the plot is unclear.
What is clear is that Kolbe had the opportunity to muscle the Forest Service either to keep the current range open or to guarantee a replacement site. But he pursued neither option. Apparently the club has less clout with Kolbe than Diamond has with the Congressman when it comes to influencing federal agencies. What Kolbe did instead to placate the several thousand constituents who make up the Gun Club was support a Joint Resolution of Congress reaffirming the multiple uses of Forest Service lands to include shooting ranges and asking the Forest Service to implement its already announced decision to find the club another site--by November 20, conveniently after the election.
Insiders are betting the offer of a site will be loaded with caveats and too expensive for the club to comply with. In the meantime, don't be surprised if what is now that supposedly obnoxious rifle range doesn't end up on the trading block with other Forest Service lands close to development. It would fit the pattern elsewhere. The sound of gunfire may soon be replaced by the sound of bulldozers.
Even sadder than Kolbe's apparent complicity with the rip-off of taxpayers, shooters, and environmentalists is the attitude of Arizona's media to this whole sordid tale. That we had to discover much of what happened from the Seattle Times is appalling. That these, and a host of other tales of Arizona sleaze, have been ignored by the big dailies in both Tucson and Phoenix is damn near criminal.
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