Judge gavel in court. Library with lot of books in background

Though an independent ethics panel cleared Councilman Guy Phillips of wrongdoing, the ordeal could have political ramifications that extend into the ongoing Scottsdale City Council and mayoral elections.

The Scottsdale City Council is scheduled to either accept or reject the panel’s report at its next meeting on Tuesday – the final step in the city’s ethics complaint process.

This is the first time since the city adopted its ethics code that a complaint has reached the ethics panel and resulted in a report for City Council review.

Based on the agenda for the May 19 meeting, it looked like the Council would accept the report with little fanfare.

The report was placed on the meeting’s consent agenda – a catchall category typically used for mundane Council activity that are all approved at the same time with one vote.

But the Progress has learned that Councilmember Virginia Korte, a candidate for mayor, will pull the report off of the consent agenda.

Councilmembers can request that consent items be pulled for further discussion.

Korte confirmed her plans to the Progress, though declined to say why.

Phillips, who is running for re-election, emailed supporters and speculated that Korte will ask her supporters to submit comments and ask they be read into the record in an attempt to discredit him.

In the email, Phillips asked his supporters to submit comments on his behalf and appeared to condone political attacks on Korte.

“I will never forgive Korte for this,” Phillips wrote. “And I endorse any Korte trashing from this point forward! To (sic) try to humiliate and defame a public official at a public council meeting is the most despicable attack I can think of.”

Phillips declined to comment on the statement but requested the Progress not print it, saying it was “passing statement to a friend”.

But the statement was emailed to several politically-influential supporters, including mayoral candidate Bob Littlefield, Emily Austin of the Save Scottsdale Facebook page, and Lamar Whitmer, a consultant who worked on the anti-Southbridge Two referendum.

Phillips previously has been critical of the ethics complaint process, arguing it could be manipulated for political purposes.

“Many city leaders in the past have also pointed out that it could be used as a political weapon but up until now it was never exercised,” Phillips said. “Now we know that to be true.” 

Phillips called the process “extremely flawed,” anyone can file a complaint with no basis.

While anyone can file one, all complaints must be vetted by both the City Attorney and an independent ethics officer – typically a retired judge – before it reaches a panel.

In 2019, then-acting City Attorney Joe Padilla referred a complaint against Councilwoman Solange Whitehead to the officer, who outright dismissed it.

But Phillips said the current process still puts too much power in the hands of Council itself to judge its own members.

“Hopefully this council or next will go back and tighten it up or remove it completely,” Phillips said. “The provision that other council members can judge one another without bias is also a political tool that I don’t think anyone on the council would want to be put through.”

Phillips is not the only one criticizing the city’s process.

Mike Norton, the resident who filed the complaint, told the Progress he has a litany of issues with how the investigation played out, including the fact that the panel did not interview witnesses in a hearing

Norton called for Council to reject the report because the panel did not interview Phillips or Sue Wood, the resident who started the GoFundMe fundraiser at the center of the complaint. Instead the panel relied on statements submitted by applicable parties due to the pandemic.

Norton’s complaint was based, in part, on allegations that a GoFundMe started by Wood to benefit Phillips following a work injury.

Norton noted 18 anonymous donations totaling around $2,400 and that could have been used in an attempt to influence Phillips’ vote on Southbridge Two.

Phillips denied the allegation and the panel found the GoFundMe was based on a benign purpose.

But Norton and others have argued that conclusion was flawed because the panel, which did not have subpoena power, never found out who made the anonymous donations.

According to GoFundMe, the names of anonymous donors are made available to both campaign organizers like Wood and beneficiaries like Phillips.

Phillips has said he chose not to know the names of the donors. Wood has not made the names public.

Norton also called into question whether or not former City Attorney Bruce Washburn, who appears to have aided Phillips during the ethics panel process, had undue influence over the outcome.

Email records show that Washburn was in contact with both City Attorney Sherry Scott and Rob Ellman, the city-hired counsel for the panel, during the investigation to request copies of documents pertaining to the trial.

Phillips also declared on a gift form filed with the city that he was receiving advice from Washburn.

“Washburn drafted pleadings for Phillips arguing against enforcing the very City Code that he himself had helped draft,” Norton said. “He argued that the code was ambiguous. And based on Washburn’s arguments, the Ethics Panel decided to let Phillips off easy while mildly spanking the perpetrators and sending a moderately blunt message to the City about needing to clean up our messes.”

The panel itself raised concerns over the ethics code and recommended changes to prevent unethical candidates from manipulating GoFundMe.

The panel stated it was “not suggesting this happened here” but recommended the city amend the code to address the loophole.

Norton called for the city to give more power to the panel to remove ambiguity and give it the power of subpoena.

Phillips has called on the Council to “tighten up” the process or remove it completely.

“It is extremely flawed,” Phillips said. “Having the council have to go through a council meeting to ‘judge’ the elected councilperson, an embarrassment for anyone, and at the same time no judicial power to put forth any punishment renders it just a political show.”