Bennett on the payroll of big-time political activistPosted: Updated:
PHOENIX -- He's the state's top election official, but Secretary of State Ken Bennett is on the payroll of a political activist who spent millions of dollars last year trying to influence campaigns throughout the country.
Since taking office in 2009, Bennett has been paid tens of thousands of dollars by Richard Stephenson, a wealthy businessman and a key player for the political group, FreedomWorks.
Bennett, who had worked for his family owned oil business in the past, draws a monthly $2,000 salary for his work as a board member for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, a for-profit company Stephenson started in the 1980s.
It's unclear how much time he spends or what kind of work Bennett does for the hospital board, but the fact he's moonlighting for someone who is so active in politics is drawing harsh criticism and accusations of a conflict of interest.
But Bennett doesn't see it that way.
"I don't think there's anything inappropriate, in fact it's an honor for me to serve on a board that’s helping treat people for cancer," Bennett said. "I'm on other boards, my whole life isn't about being secretary of state."
There are no rules or state laws that would keep Bennett from taking another paid job. According to his financial disclosure statements, his only sources of income are his $70,000 annual salary as Secretary of State and the money he makes from working with Stephenson. His wife, according to the financial documents, works for the Maricopa County Recorder's Office.
Although he's not as well know as the Conservative Koch Brothers or the left leaning George Soros, Stephenson is a big-time player in American politics.
The reclusive Illinois businessman sits on the board of FreedomWorks, a powerful organization that spent millions last year to defeat mostly Democratic candidates. The group was also one of the driving forces behind the Tea Party movement.
It's been reported that Stephenson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was the man behind a $12 million donation that found its way into the FreedomWorks bank accounts late in the election cycle last year. In addition, he's reportedly agreed to donate $400,000 a year to FreedomWorks for the next 20 years.
Stephenson and associates with Cancer Treatment Centers of America also donated more than 30 percent of the money Bennett has raised for his exploratory committee for governor.
Despite his association with FreedomWorks and the campaign contributions, Bennett said, "I don't see Mr. Stephenson as a political activist."
Bennett says he joined the board in 2009. That same year then Secretary of State Jan Brewer became governor after Gov. Janet Napolitano left for a job in the Obama administration.
Brewer later picked Bennett as her replacement. In 2010, Bennett was elected to the office and since has been considered one of the top candidates for governor.
During an interview with 3TV Bennett said he wasn't familiar with the politics of Stephenson. But later in the interview, Bennett said, "We talked politics and I knew of his interest and the goals of FreedomWorks and things like that."
In addition, Bennett was vague about the amount of time he spends working for the hospital.
"I can't do everything I'd like to do for them but I can squeeze out a few hours a month to be on the board," Bennett said. He later said, "Sometimes I spend several hours a week and many hours a month (on the board)."
Regardless of what he does or how much times he spends working for the board, critics said there's no way the state's top election official should be working for a political activist.
"We known that FreedomWorks and Mr. Stephenson are engaged in electoral politics, there appears to be a real conflict of interest," said Sam Wercinski, the director of the Arizona Advocacy Network.
His organization has been pushing the state Legislature for reforms to make sure this kind of situation doesn't happen.
"The secretary of state isn't doing anything illegal because Arizona has weak, in fact, no conflict of interest laws," Wercinski said.
And political consultants believe Bennett should avoid the perception of any wrongdoing.
"I don't think there's anything nefarious here, Ken Bennett is certainly one of the nicest gentlemen you'll ever meet," said Republican political consultant Marcus Dell’Artino.
"Political speaking it's smarter to not take another job and just do your elected responsibilities."
Dell'Artino's business partner, Democratic political consultant Barry Dill said, "Perception is reality and it's just not the standard practice, that people elected to high office usually resign their board seats.