Judgment Day

City Council candidate Vernon Walker finally pays up--but is it too late to save his campaign?

More than a year after losing an appeal in court, Republican City Council candidate Vernon Walker delivered a check to former tenant Melissa Allen last week--along with a threat to pursue future legal action against her.

The offer to pay the outstanding debt came from Walker's campaign consultant, George Gobble, just hours after the Weekly hit the streets last Thursday with a cover story, "Meet Vernon Walker," that detailed Walker's troubled financial background, which included being taken to court in recent years by various parties who claimed he owed them a total of more than $100,000. The largest single lawsuit came from the Tucson Association for the Blind and the Visually Impaired, which said that $45,000 of the organization's money ended up in Walker's business bank account while he was serving on the board.

Gobble said Walker had no comment for the Weekly about last week's payment, which arose out of a lawsuit filed by Allen when Walker failed to return her $400 deposit after she moved out of one of his rental units in May 2002. Representing themselves, Allen and her former roommate, Jennifer Cannon, took Walker to small-claims court to recover the deposit, along with damages.

Walker countersued the women, but Justice of the Peace José Luis Castillo Jr. ruled that the women's testimony was "substantially more credible" than the story Walker told in court.

Last week, Walker insisted the case was ongoing and the courts were still weighing his counterclaim, even though his most recent appeal had been rejected more than a year ago. He said he could not comment on his legal strategy for resurrecting the case.

Allen said a $1,331.97 check, which included the original deposit, along with damages, interest and additional court costs stemming from Walker's appeal, was delivered on Friday, Aug. 26.

"It's kind of bittersweet," said Allen, a 24-year-old administrative assistant who launched her lawsuit against Walker while she was still attending the UA. "It's nice, but at the same time, I had to fight so hard for it, and now I know he's going to turn around and say, 'Look at me; look at how good of a person I am. I found out about this debt and paid it right away.' Of course, he knew about it for three years."

Allen noted that the check came with a letter in which Walker reserved the right to pursue further legal action against Allen and Cannon. She dismissed the threat as so much bluster.

"I'm not sure what the rules exactly are on appealing an appeal," Allen said, "but I'm pretty sure that if they didn't have some statute of limitations, that everyone would just continue to appeal."

Gobble said Walker had no comment on whether he would pursue further legal action in the case.

Whether the payment can rescue Walker's political reputation remains to be seen. A number of GOP elected officials contacted last week declined to comment on the record about Walker, although one described him as a "walking piñata."

Gobble, who is also the strategist for GOP Councilman Fred Ronstadt's re-election campaign, said he expected Ronstadt would stick by Walker, who hopes to defeat Ward 5 incumbent Steve Leal in the November general election.

"I would assume they'd do regular Republican Party activities together, whatever those may be," Gobble said. "I know they'll do a rally and some door-to-door things. I assume they'll be at those things together."

Ronstadt did not return several phone calls from the Weekly.

Republican Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar, who is also seeking re-election, had no comment on Walker's candidacy.

Democratic Party Chairman Paul Eckerstrom said that if Walker and Ronstadt "want to campaign together, arm-in-arm, I'm all for it."

Eckerstrom added that he was "taken aback by some of the comments that Walker made trying to cover up what he had done.

"Recruiting somebody like this to run for office shows a lack of integrity and foresight about who should be running for a position like the City Council," he said.

Eckerstrom took particular notice of Walker's explanation of why he had voted only once during the last 25 years in Pima County, in 1986. Walker told the Weekly he had cast early ballots by mail, but refused to sign the outside of the envelope, as required by law, because he felt it violated his right to a secret ballot.

Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez said her records, which stretch back to 1996, show that Walker had never requested an early ballot.

"The fact that he said he had voted by mail since 1986 is absurd," said Eckerstrom, noting that before 1991, absentee voting was strictly restricted to people who had compelling reasons to cast an early ballot. "He obviously blatantly lied about it, because there's no record he ever requested a ballot."

Eckerstrom said the Weekly's story on Walker "puts the Republican Party in a bit of a dilemma."

State law requires political parties to feature at least three candidates on mailers or other campaign material if the candidates are mentioned by name.

"Now I'm not so sure they want to have Vernon Walker on there with Kathleen Dunbar and Fred Ronstadt," said Eckerstrom.

Pima County Republican Party Chair Judi White had no comment on Walker's qualifications for City Council, saying only, "I'm glad I live in a country where anyone can run for office."

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