Down the Drain

Missing money remains a mystery at José Ibarra's Ward 1 office.

José Ibarra is undefeated, but the dawn of his third term on the City Council is clouded by a police investigation that confirms the theft of more than $4,000 in constituents' water payments from his westside Ward 1 office.

That cloud is darkened by campaign finance reports that reveal Ibarra used a mix of campaign contributions and taxpayer money--provided to candidates under the city's matching funds program--to subsidize the real estate speculation of his campaign chairman, Jose Rincon.

Records show that the Ibarra campaign paid $6,823 to Rincon and his wife, Adriana, for use of a house at 1012 W. St. Mary's Road from late August until shortly after the Nov. 4 election. The Rincons, both agents for Long Realty, bought the property in August with an $8,200, or 10 percent, down payment, according to Pima County property records.

It is on the missing water payment money that Ibarra, a Democrat who first won the Ward 1 seat in 1995, says he is the victim.

He blames City Manager James Keene for fomenting political strife within Ward 1 and political divisions on the council, where the Democrats' slim 4-3 majority is further shrunk by Carol West's frequent votes with Republicans.

"When I found out about the missing water bill money, I told the city attorney and the city clerk and the police," Ibarra said. "I sent a memo to the city attorney and copied the clerk and the police. But I knew it would turn into a political investigation rather than a police investigation once Keene got involved."

Ibarra said he sought police action without Keene's participation, but Keene responded that the police chief is under his direction.

"The police acquiesced, and I realized that this was going to turn into a political football. Keene is the type of guy who's very vindictive. I've been his toughest critic. I don't like him. He doesn't like me. He wants a cloud hanging over me.

"Because of Jim Keene's fuck-up--he's fucked this up--he's complicated it and fouled up the investigation," Ibarra said. "He couldn't even follow (Andy Griffth's TV lawyer) Matlock."

Keene bit his tongue Monday, following a full afternoon with Ibarra and the rest of the council. He said he warned Ibarra last summer about having untrained, political aides handling money.

What happened, Keene said, is what he predicted.

"If he'd followed my recommendation and advice, none of this would even exist," Keene said.

Ibarra acknowledged that Democrats Steve Leal and Shirley Scott are arguably tougher on Keene several days after Keene issued a cover memo for Police Chief Richard Miranda's Dec. 16 report on the missing $4,378 in 100 water bill payments made at the Ward 1 office, 940 W. Alameda St.

The matter came to light five days before Election Day, when Ibarra defeated political neophyte Armando Rios, a Republican. At the time, Ibarra attempted to portray the theft as a product of the link between a former Ward 1 staff member and Rios.

The woman, Cara Reid, and Rios categorically denied that. And Reid has since retained Michael Crawford, the Tucson lawyer who has had an acrimonious relationship with Ibarra since he was appointed to serve part of a term on the City Council. Crawford, a Democrat who supported Rios and headed a committee that helped re-elect Republican Mayor Bob Walkup, was ousted from the council in 1997.

"I'm kind of disappointed, frustrated and angry," Ibarra said. "I am frustrated that there is no suspect within the realm of an investigation centered around five people, with no fingerprinting required, no undercover work required."

Neither the police nor the Pima County Attorney's Office has pinpointed who stole the money, paid by residents of the Menlo Park and other neighborhoods in Ward 1. Ibarra's was the last council office to have political aides accept water bill payments.

Miranda, in a Dec. 16 memo to Keene, said that Deputy County Attorney Joseph Buescher "determined a crime had been committed, but there was insufficient evidence to charge any specific person(s). The Tucson Police Department will continue to follow up on any investigative leads related to this theft of public funds and consider the case open."

That the case is on-going led Ibarra to think Keene is further playing politics. Neither police nor other city officials will comment on pending matters.

Keene has responded that Ibarra suspicions are wildly off the mark, in part, because the information was released in response to a public records request last fall made by the Arizona Daily Star.

"It's hard for me to see what role I played in this in the least," Keene said.

Ibarra still doesn't buy it, saying City Hall, under Keene, so flouts the Arizona Public Records law that the Star's publisher had to complain at a council meeting. He also said that city publicist Jay Gonzales "tipped off" a Star reporter about the matter and prompted him to file the public records request.

"That is absolutely not true," Gonzales said. "That absolutely did not happen."

A reporter called Gonzales after hearing about missing money in Ward 1, Gonzales said.

"The memos were out, so where the reporter got it is anybody's guess," Gonzales said.

What has not been contested is the blatantly slipshod manner in which the water payments were handled in the Ward 1 office. Staff was untrained, and the money and cash box were unsecured, according to the police report, which noted that there were no records of which staff members were handling the money and that the open cash box could be dipped into for "borrowing for lunch and other personal expenses."

Ibarra said none of his complaints about Keene "excuses what happened at the Ward 1 office. I take responsibility and I want that person brought to justice. We initiated the investigation."

On the issue of his re-election headquarters that was also used by the Democratic Party, Ibarra said he was a reluctant tenant. He said he preferred an office on the southside where he engineered his 1995 victory and preferred a more suitable, less "delicate" building than a former residence with hardwood floors.

Still, he provided the Rincons, who speculate several Tucson properties, with income to offset the $82,000 purchase of the St. Mary's Road house.

Roughly half of that rent came from taxpayers, whose money supports the city's matching funds program for council and mayoral candidates.

Campaign finance reports show payments to the Rincons of $400 on Aug. 28; $800 on Sept. 22 and again on Oct. 23 listed as "rent," $3,823 on Nov. 4 and $1,000 on Nov. 11, both listed as for "headquarters."

Jose Rincon, 37, is a political independent who played a key role in the residential battle against the makeover of El Con Mall, near his East Fifth Street home, four years ago. County records show that he and his wife bought the St. Mary's Road property for $82,000 in May. It is valued for tax purposes at $56,770. The Rincons also got a tax break because the property, at the time it was occupied by the Ibarra campaign, was categorized as residential property. Commercial property is taxed at a rate 2.5 times higher than residential property.

"I don't think there was anything improper," Ibarra said. "I checked with the city clerk's office and paid the market rate based on what ... other people paid in the area."