When John Kromko ran against Phil Lopes and Olivia Cajero Bedford in the 2008 Democratic primary for the state House of Representatives in Legislative District 27, all he had to do to qualify for the ballot was turn in 400 signatures.
On June 4, 2008, Kromko reportedly turned in twice that required number of signatures—some 800—to the Secretary of State's Office.
Many months after the election—which Kromko lost—on April 24, 2009, the Pima County Attorney's Office, on behalf of the state, charged Kromko with 19 counts of identity theft, forgery and fraudulent schemes, based on 29 disputed signatures on the ballot petition.
Last month, Kromko accepted an agreement in which he said he'd plead guilty to the forgery and fraudulent-scheme charges. His attorney, Pima County public defender David Euchner, said Kromko will return to court on Feb. 28 to face sentencing.
Kromko's failed run in 2008 was followed by another unsuccessful try at an LD 27 seat in 2010. A former state Legislator, Kromko was in office for 14 years before he left in 1990.
He unsuccessfully ran for the Pima County Board of Supervisors in 1992. Kromko's been on a losing streak ever since, and the plea agreement he signed on Jan. 10 prevents him from running for political office for the next five years. This won't be the first time he's been kept from running for office; after a failed justice of the peace bid in 1996, Kromko was banned from running for office in Pima County for five years for improperly filing campaign-finance reports.
Depending on who you talk to, Kromko today is either a gadfly flimflam man who heads anti-tax crusades and has lost many friends along the way in the Democratic Party; or he's a dedicated community activist who sticks up for Tucsonans who can't afford garbage-fee increases, as well as those who are scratching their heads over the intricate deals behind Rio Nuevo.
West University neighborhood resident Jerry Juliani has known Kromko since 1984, when they both got involved in neighborhood issues. Juliani is also a member of Kromko's anti-tax group, the Pima Association of Taxpayers. Juliani said the Kromko he knows is the community activist who genuinely cares about people and Tucson.
That person, he said, is not a criminal.
Juliani said he thinks the criminal charges against Kromko are part of a witch hunt to discredit and embarrass him, because he's been an outspoken critic of County Attorney Barbara LaWall, local tax and fee proposals, and Rio Nuevo.
"I believe they set him up with these charges, and he had no choice but to plead guilty. These are criminal charges, and the 19 counts could result, at John's age, to a life in prison. I think it's a misuse of authority," Juliani said.
"The thing is, John doesn't have a criminal bent to him. He's not a devious person; he doesn't hide anything. His life is an open book, and he's always worked for the public's interest. Even if you may not agree with his methods, that's what he's about."
Euchner, who spoke on his client's behalf, told the Tucson Weekly that the plea agreement was made in an effort to keep Kromko from going to prison.
Euchner said that if Kromko had been charged under election-code statutes with a petition offense, which is almost always the case in such matters, Kromko would have faced misdemeanor charges. However, the county, after taking the case to the Grand Jury, charged Kromko under criminal forgery and fraud statutes—which are felonies that require prison time.
According to court documents, the signatures in question were analyzed by a document examiner from the Arizona Department of Public Safety's crime labs, who determined the signatures were made in Kromko's handwriting.
But it wasn't evidence like this that forced Kromko to accept a plea agreement. Euchner said that when his arguments on behalf of his client failed, a plea agreement made sense to help the 70-year-old Kromko avoid mandatory prison time. Depending on what happens at Kromko's sentencing, Euchner is hoping that what is now an "undesignated" felony charge is turned into a misdemeanor, meaning Kromko can be sentenced to probation.
Kromko's case was particularly challenging for Euchner. Because most of these cases end up as misdemeanor election-code-statute violations, there wasn't any case precedent to help Euchner defend Kromko.
Although Superior Court Judge Terry Chandler ultimately rejected Euchner's various motions, at different times during the court proceedings, she questioned the county's motives. During an October proceeding last year, Chandler expressed how perplexing the case was due to the fact that the county brought criminal charges rather than the AG's office filing election-code violations.
"Well, as I said, I feel like this is very perplexing, why Mr. Kromko would be charged this way, when there's a clear statute or it looks like it's a fairly clear statute, but I have to apply the rules of criminal construction," she said. "Despite the fact that I have a lot of questions about why the case is in the posture that it's in, I still believe the state can elect to go this way."
Euchner said Kromko isn't happy about having to plead guilty, "but when mandatory prison is part of the picture if the result is a loss at trial, you just can't take the risk. Had we won any of our motions, we would have been able to take the case to trial. There wouldn't have been the mandatory prison risk."
Although the criminal charges and the plea agreement will prevent Kromko from running for office for five years, they aren't preventing him from continuing his efforts. Last week, Kromko filed a lawsuit against the Rio Nuevo District and developer Don Bourn.
Seven years ago, Rio Nuevo struck a deal with Bourn that allowed him to purchase a block of downtown Tucson for only $100. The suit claims the deal violated Arizona's gift clause, because the Bourn property remains undeveloped.
"Unfortunately, that's about all the people in power will respect," Juliani said about his friend's legal actions. "They don't really respect common citizen complaints; they brush them off. But if you file a lawsuit, their lawyers tell them, 'You have to do something about this.' It's unfortunately what has to be done, suing public officials to do what you elected them to do.
"I wish Tucson had a dozen more people like John."