April 27, 2005 - The news that Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr. faces federal charges of conspiracy and attempted extortion broke midway through an otherwise quiet Friday afternoon April 22.
Morale inside Marana Town Hall sunk fast as the town manager's staff scurried to prepare an official statement in reaction to the news they unofficially knew was coming for some time.
Within minutes, the verdict was in: The town will stand behind its mayor. Sutton will not be asked to resign, said Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat.
"We respect the right of Mr. Sutton as an individual, and as a member of the council, to exercise the right of presumption of innocence until proven otherwise," Reuwsaat said in an interview earlier this week. "The judicial process is going to bring out the facts, and that's what I think decisions need to be made off of."
The FBI had been investigating Sutton and his close acquaintance, Richard "Rick" Westfall, since early 2002, for allegedly conspiring to extort large sums of money and a lucrative contract for Westfall from Houston-based Waste Management, the nation's largest trash hauling firm.
The Marana Town Council held a special meeting April 26 that occurred after the EXPLORER's press time, but council members were expected to meet to authorize an agreement that would allow the town to pay Sutton's legal fees as the case heads to court.
"The judicial process will probably continue in the weeks, months ahead and we expect to have answers to a lot of questions as the proceedings continue," Reuwsaat said, adding that the town will pick up the tab on Sutton's legal bill as long as he isn't found guilty, because town officials say Sutton was acting in his capacity as mayor when the alleged crimes occurred.
"It's a pretty common thing in the corporate world, because look, if he wasn't mayor, he wouldn't be here," said Michael Piccarreta, Sutton's lawyer. "All of his actions were as mayor, not that he was out there doing something for himself."
Town Attorney Frank Cassidy cited the town's ability to pay Sutton's attorney fees in Town Code Section 2-10-2, which reads, "Any town officer and all town officials shall be exonerated, indemnified and held harmless by the town from and against any liability or loss in any manner" arising from his or her service as a town official provided that person acted in good faith and in the best interests of the town.
Roxanne Ziegler, who served on the town council from 1997 to 2001, said she's disappointed but not surprised the town will stand behind Sutton.
"I don't care if he's guilty or not, to fund his legal team with town money just doesn't sound right to me," she said. "If the council is standing behind that, which obviously they will be when they vote, I may ask them to resign."
Ziegler told the EXPLORER in an interview earlier this week that she was planning to ask for Sutton's resignation at the April 26 meeting.
"To me, there's just too much information to say he was responding to a constituent's concerns," she said. "He needs to step down. He needs to let someone else step in. For him to continue to be the mayor is just as arrogant for him to say, 'I didn't do this.'"
Ziegler compared the town's situation to a 1978 mass suicide in Guyana in which more than 900 followers of Jim Jones consumed a grape-flavored cocktail containing cyanide.
"It just depends on how much pressure that Marana says, 'Hey this is our mayor and you've got to stand behind him, man.' You know, take the poison," Ziegler said. "My inclination is they're all going to jump on the bandwagon."
Born and raised in Louisiana, Sutton has lived in Marana for more than a decade. He and his wife, Monica, have three young children. In his free time, Sutton is known to enjoy golfing, coaches Little League baseball and is characterized by many as a good husband, a respected father and a community-focused leader.
First elected to the council in 1995, Sutton was vice mayor before becoming Marana's first directly elected mayor in 1999. He works as an advertising executive in sales with Qwest Dex Yellow Pages.
Town officials describe Sutton as a civic leader of Marana who is committed to the town's citizens.
"It's saddening because Bobby has done so much for the community," said Jim DeGrood, executive assistant to the town manager, who described his feelings on the indictment as "shocked and disappointed."
In truth, Sutton has been a leader in many
arenas - not just in Marana, but the larger regional community.
Sutton has served on the Breast and Prostate Cancer Awareness Committees, the Greater Tucson Economic Council, the Domestic Violence Commission and the Marana Youth Fund.
He also represents the town as a regional leader in the Pima Association of Governments, where he serves as vice chairman of PAG's regional council and the Regional Transportation Authority.
Gary Hayes, PAG's executive director, said he was shocked and surprised to hear news of charges against Sutton, who he said has been a good leader and will continue to be unless he's proven guilty.
"I'm a great believer in innocent until proven guilty and Bobby is a young guy, a young mayor, who has impressed me since day one," Hayes said. "Right now, he is what he is, which is one of the leaders of the region and he is the vice chair of both sitting organizations. Obviously, he was deemed by his counterparts as being a leader of the community. By that, I mean the regional community, not just Marana."
The RTA is aggressively putting together a set of recommendations to bring to voters in spring 2006, which will ask them to decide whether to pass a list of major transportation improvement projects and a half-cent sales tax that will be used to pay for them.
Sutton has participated in a number of public forums with Hayes, giving presentations to the region's citizens and business leaders. The RTA board has impaneled a 35-member citizens committee, including many representatives from the Northwest, and a technical committee of 22 members.
"We're on a very fast track," Hayes said. "Bobby Sutton is one of the handful of young elected leaders of this community and constitutes a good portion of this community's future. I'm a big fan and supporter of Bobby Sutton, there's no question about it."
Sutton did not return several phone calls from the EXPLORER seeking comment, but offered a written statement April 22, which stated he was confident he will be found not guilty and disappointed that the federal government has chosen to bring charges.
Council members did not return several phone calls from the EXPLORER seeking comment. Council members Tim Escobedo and Ed Honea declined to comment. Escobedo said he had been instructed to refer all comments to town staff.
One Marana employee, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was scared she might lose her job, said she felt threatened by an e-mail sent from the town manager's office that implied town employees would be reprimanded for speaking unfavorably of the mayor.
"There must be some kind of a hidden mantra that says, 'Anybody who works for the town of Marana, no matter what we're faced with, you will always sing our praises,'" Ziegler said.
Former Marana Mayor Ora Harn said she was concerned Sutton's indictment, whether he's guilty or not, could affect the business of the town.
"I certainly am in prayer for the mayor and our community as these are very serious accusations," Harn said. "I am very concerned for the mayor and the impact this could have on Marana."
Despite the hanging cloud, Reuwsaat said the town will continue with business as usual.
"Clearly the investigation of Mr. Sutton is separate from the daily operations of the town of Marana. Work is still going on," he said. "The mayor and the council and staff are still committed to continuing to implement the highest levels of service, programs and projects for Marana residents and visitors.
"Mayor Sutton has been an integral part of this commitment and that commitment remains unchanged. We have set a high bar and we're going to continue to work toward that for our residents for a high quality of life."
In a written statement, Reuwsaat offered his understanding of the circumstances that led to Sutton's indictment, saying that Westfall asked Sutton to attend a meeting with Waste Management in 2002 where Westfall alleged its subcontractors were intentionally hauling trash dangerously overweight, risking the safety of the traveling public.
"The Mayor has assured the town that he participated in additional meetings with Waste Management in his capacity as Mayor to protect the rights of Mr. Westfall as a whistleblower and the safety of the traveling public," Reuwsaat's statement reads. "The town is not aware of any evidence that the Mayor ever demanded or received payment or anything of value for participating in the meetings."
The indictment shows transcripts of a phone conversation in which Sutton gave a Waste Management employee a bank account number to make an alleged money transfer for Westfall.
When the EXPLORER reported on the FBI investigation last year, Sutton claimed Waste Management was retaliating against him and Westfall, commenting, "I think this is a clear matter of big business trying to hurt a whistle blower on something that they were doing wrong and they're trying to tie me up in that."
Tucson City Manager Mike Hein, who worked as Marana's town manager at the time of the alleged extortion, said he was surprised by the indictment. He was one of several Marana employees interviewed by the FBI during the course of the investigation, and thought the issue had died and gone away.
"I don't think anybody's accusing the town as an organization or any of its employees of doing anything wrong, but it's not a comfortable thing to watch," he said.
Neither Sutton nor Westfall ever brought any issues regarding Waste Management to his attention before the FBI got involved, Hein said.
"That was the surprising thing, clearly myself, and I assume a lot of other people with the town, had become aware of it after the FBI interviewed us and you start asking questions," he said.
Hein said he considered Sutton a good boss and said the mayor never asked him to do anything inappropriate. But after reading the indictment, he said, it does tell a different story than what he's been hearing, but the truth will have to be sorted out in court.
"I'm sure, in the end, a lot of answers will have to be provided and I trust those answers will be forthcoming, but I was genuinely surprised," he said. "I think Bobby's going to have to make a lot of tough decisions. I think a lot of people besides myself are waiting to see how Bobby reacts in what he says."
Meanwhile, others in the greater Tucson area also are waiting to hear more details of the case.
Rep. Jonathan Paton, R-Dist. 30 in Tucson, declared the case a stain on Southern Arizona this past weekend, telling reporters he was going to call the Auditor General's office to go over Marana's books. He changed his tune after hearing Marana is already audited on a regular basis.
"Everyone's told me that they felt like, whatever is going on, it has nothing to do with the town itself and that's when I said, 'Well, I'll look at what the case looks like before I do anything else,'" Paton said, adding that Sutton is innocent until proven guilty.
Court records indicate Sutton has a longstanding personal friendship with Westfall, a trucking contractor and a resident of Marana known to be involved in many local charities.
Commenting on that relationship, Ziegler cited a quote from George Washington: "Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation. For it is better to be alone than in bad company."
Ziegler echoed that quote with her own statements, suggesting Sutton should have steered clear of getting involved with Westfall and Waste Management.
"It doesn't make him a bad father or a bad coach - he's just made what looks like one hell of a bad, bad decision," she said. "Bobby should have dumped this guy a long time ago and what a shame."