Funding Fracas

Accusations of conflict of interest and misspent money take center stage in the District 2 supervisors' campaign

Jennifer Eckstrom was surprised to become a target of criticism by Democrat Robert Robuck as he campaigns to become the next District 2 Pima County supervisor

The world of politics is nothing new for the 31-year-old mayor of South Tucson; after all, her father is legendary South Tucson politico Dan Eckstrom. However, she's never been caught in the middle of such campaign mudslinging.

Robuck, who is taking on incumbent Ramón Valadez, alleges a conflict of interest: Eckstrom works a full-time job as Valadez's executive assistant, and Robuck feels that too much money is making its way from Pima County into South Tucson's coffers.

Robuck in particular questions the possible mismanagement of funds allocated to the John Valenzuela Youth Center, and the amount of flood-control dollars going toward South Tucson's park-maintenance efforts.

At the recent Nucleus Club debate, Robuck highlighted Eckstrom's job in Valadez's office, comparing it to Robuck hiring his own wife to work as his executive assistant.

Eckstrom, sitting in a back corner table with other Valadez staffers, shot back, "I'm not married to him."

Eckstrom, who was elected to the South Tucson City Council at the age of 18 (becoming the youngest elected official in Arizona history), said she looks back at the Nucleus Club debate and regrets responding to Robuck.

"It just came out," Eckstrom said. "But if there was any conflict of interest, I wouldn't be working in Valadez's office. The county wouldn't allow it."

Eckstrom made it clear, however, that she wasn't interested in getting involved with Valadez's campaign or debating Robuck about her job with the county. But she conceded that she feels caught in the middle and on the defensive.

Robuck announced his candidacy in April, saying that part of what inspired him to run was the Augusta Resource Corporation's potential Rosemont mine operation and the impacts it could have on his and other homes in the Sahuarita area.

However, on June 24 at high noon, Robuck's campaign moved beyond the proposed mine when he held a press conference in front of the federal building in downtown Tucson. Robuck handed out a packet of county e-mails between county staff and South Tucson officials that he acquired through a public-records request, filled out by attorney Bill Risner on Robuck's behalf.

Robuck refused to identify the county employee who told him about questions that were circulating regarding possible financial mismanagement. He says he gave the documents to federal authorities when he asked for an investigation, but he declined to say who those authorities were, claiming he was told that if he released that information, it could impede any investigation.

The purported potential investigation stems from the fact that some of the funds that went to the John Valenzuela Youth Center through Catholic Community Services were federal dollars distributed through community-development-block-grant funds.

Within the documents Robuck toted out at the press conference is a series of e-mails from Derek Shaw, administrative services manager for Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation (NRPR), first to Ruben Villa, South Tucson's finance director, and then to NRPR director Rafael Payan.

In a Feb. 4 e-mail, Shaw requested documentation from Villa for all expenses regarding the county funds given for youth programming at the youth center on South Sixth Avenue, but he was not satisfied with the information provided. On March 7, Shaw reported to Payan and deputy county administrator John Bernal that he hadn't found any evidence that the community-development block grants and Pima County funds were "being used for the purpose that they are intended."

On March 25, a draft memo went out from Payan to Bernal calling for an external investigation if proper documentation was not provided. On March 26, Bernal responded that Payan's memo and concerns were shared with Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, as well as South Tucson City Manager Enrique Serna. But Payan's request for an external investigation went unanswered.

Deputy county administrator Hank Atha conducted a review of the funding and concluded that nothing was wrong. Yet Payan continued to e-mail county staff, as late as May 22, that financial documentation remained missing regarding how the $113,000 from NRPR was spent on youth services.

In an interview with the Weekly, Eckstrom--who was sitting next to Serna--said she was well aware of Robuck's allegations, as well as his contention that the $260,000 provided to South Tucson from the Pima County Regional Flood Control District was "an inappropriately high allocation."

Serna noted that those flood-control dollars are an important part of South Tucson's history. When Sam Lena was the area's county supervisor, he fought for those flood-control dollars in order to conduct the drainage cleaning that was needed to ease monsoon damage, Serna said.

Serna insists those dollars are still needed. "The relationship between Pima County and South Tucson is a tradition that goes back to when county officials realized that it's important to take care of South Tucson, that South Tucson can impact the economic vitality of our county," Serna said.

Regarding the dollars going to the John Valenzuela Youth Center, Serna said the county looked at the funding closely and decided there was no longer an issue.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry agreed, saying that county officials determined that the existence of two funding sources led to some confusion. However, Huckelberry said that once the county met with Catholic Community Services and South Tucson officials on July 17, any question of impropriety was laid to rest.

"No duplicate invoicing had taken place," Huckelberry says. "There were some recommendations on how South Tucson communicates expenditures and costs, but nothing more."

While the county has come up with its own conclusions, Robuck said he thinks a federal investigation remains on the horizon. Meanwhile, Eckstrom continues in her dual positions as mayor of South Tucson and Valadez's executive assistant. She said she wonders if her gender and age had anything to do with the allegations of impropriety.

"I'm qualified to sit in that (county) office and the one right here at City Hall," Eckstrom said. "I feel like I was thrown into this election. I'm certain if my brother was mayor and working for Ramón, this would not be an issue."

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