A former East Valley legislative candidate has been criminally indicted over allegations he misused more than $100,000 in public campaign funding — including spending thousands of tax dollars at Scottsdale's most popular nightclubs.
Indicted on six felony counts, Yurikino Cenit "Yuri" Downing, 33, of Scottsdale could face up to 46 years in prison if convicted.
Downing was the leader of three candidates who ran for the state Legislature as Libertarians in 2002 to represent most of Tempe and southern Scottsdale. He has always insisted he and his former roommates were running an unorthodox, "youth-oriented" campaign when they spent money for parties at night clubs, vehicle rentals from Tucson and new office equipment.
But Colleen Connor, executive director of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission, said in April 2003 she couldn't find any evidence that the three made a serious bid for office.
Now, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and a state grand jury have accused Downing of illegally planning to use the campaign tax dollars for other purposes.
An indictment released Monday doesn't spell out what those purposes were, and Goddard spokeswoman Andrea Esquer said she couldn't comment on the details.
Downing, a son of state Rep. Ted Downing, D-Tucson, couldn't be reached for comment Monday. Downing remained free pending his first court appearance, which was scheduled for July 28.
In late 2001, Downing convinced friends Trevor Clevenger and Paul DeDonati they could use Arizona's new system of candidate public financing to run as a slate for three legislative seats in District 17. The three collected enough $5 donations to qualify for the state funding, but finished far behind the major party candidates in the 2002 general election.
Meanwhile, tax attorney Bob Kamman of Glendale filed a formal complaint with the Arizona Citizens Clean Election Commission. Kamman said campaign finance reports appeared to show the three were buying items not allowed under commission rules.
"What led to my interest in this situation was a Tribune article describing the
three candidates' unusual campaign," Kamman said. "For elections to be clean, it takes more than public money; it also requires vigilance by media and citizens. Yuri Downing should have his day in court. Meanwhile, I hope that this process does not contribute to repeal of public financing for Arizona elections. The system needs to be repaired, not destroyed."
Downing served as treasurer for all three candidates and has told state officials he was the de facto campaign manager for the other two, making all spending decisions and keeping their records. A commission investigation revealed that in addition to liquor and nightclubs, the trio rented office space outside of the district and purchased computers and other personal office equipment in violation of state rules.
But the commission's accountants said they couldn't conduct a requested audit of the campaigns because of shoddy bookkeeping.
The commission ordered all three to repay their public funding of a combined $101,000. Clevenger and DeDonati eventually struck deals with the state to return $15,000 each, or about half of their campaign funds, in monthly installments over five years.
But Downing initially challenged an order to repay $41,155. He claimed the commission was changing rules or making them up because state officials didn't approve of how the campaigns were conducted.
Questions posed to Downing by Goddard's staff during the appeal implied the real purpose of taking the public funds was to build exposure for "944," a magazine devoted to covering the Valley's nightlife. Downing denied in a deposition last year there was any connection and magazine representatives said Monday that Downing hadn't worked there for at least two years.
The administrative appeal dragged on for several months and then Downing suddenly dropped it in December. Downing told the Tribune at the time he couldn't afford to continue fighting the state and he feared the attorney general's office might be trying to build a criminal case.
The most serious charge is a Class 2 felony for fraudulent scheme and artifice, which alleges the entire campaign effort was a plot to divert the money to other purposes. Four other counts of felony perjury refer to oath forms and a campaign finance report signed by Downing that promised the money was used for direct campaign purposes.
The final charge of Class 4 theft claims Downing spent $2,472 at restaurants, bars and gas stations on items that clearly weren't campaign expenses.