Maskless partiers lined the streets of Old Town Scottsdale hoping to get into their favorite nightclub on Memorial Day weekend, days after Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey allowed his extended stay-at-home order to expire.
They jammed into Bottled Blonde, bumping and grinding.
Over at International Boutique Nightclub, Floyd Mayweather, the undefeated former professional boxer, danced alongside 20-somethings as they sipped on drinks and listened to the latest bop blasting out of the speakers.
Those nightclubs, where patrons danced, sweat and breathed all over each other, put Arizona in the national spotlight as the state became a coronavirus hotspot and the state’s plan to reopen the economy keeps nightclubs closed until later stages of the plan.
Six popular nightclubs in Old Town are owned by the family of Christina Corieri, Ducey’s senior health policy adviser, and even though she has some involvement in the family business, the governor’s chief of staff, Daniel Scarpinato, said she presented no conflict of interest as the governor’s advisers determined when businesses could reopen.
“She is not involved in [reopening or business] decisions, she is not making those decisions. So you have nothing to point to in terms of any conflict of interest other than pure conjecture,” Scarpinato said.
Though Ducey’s administration has said that nightclubs are not allowed to open during the first phase of the state’s reopening, a provision allowing dine-in restaurants to operate also allows for bars and clubs that offer food to open.
Corieri’s parents, Diane and Les Corieri, own Evening Entertainment Group, a “food and beverage empire,” that has made them among the most influential forces in Arizona’s club scene for at least a decade.
EEG owns popular nightclubs like Scottsdale’s Hi-Fi Kitchen + Cocktails, Bottled Blonde, Casa Amigos and other local bars and restaurants like RnR Gastropub and Sandbar Mexican Grill.
Christina is listed in documents filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission as the statutory agent for several of their clubs.
Arizona’s Revised Statutes says government employees should make it known if there is a conflict – even if it’s through a family member.
Arizona Public Interest Research Group, an open-government advocacy group, says at the very least, Corieri’s dual loyalties create the appearance of a conflict of interest, and should be disclosed as such.
“The public has a right to know if anyone on the governor’s staff may have profited or has the potential to profit from decisions that were made,” said Diane Brown, the executive director of PIRG.
The Corieri family has contributed roughly $30,000 to Ducey’s political campaigns in 2014 and 2018. Backing Ducey was a family decision – both parents and three children contributed on the same day in 2014.
Diane Corieri contributed $2,000 to Ducey’s 2014 campaign and put in another $10,000 for his 2018 re-election. Les, her husband and co-owner, contributed the same amount, according to Arizona Secretary of State Office’s campaign finance records.
Christina, a former staffer with the Goldwater Institute and former chief of staff for Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, gave Ducey a modest $150 in 2014 and nothing in 2018. And her two brothers Dustin and Hunter contributed roughly $2,000 a piece in 2014.
Dustin and Hunter are also a part of the family business, according to their social media accounts. Dustin is listed as a manager of one Bottled Blonde location and Hunter is a bartender for one of Bottled Blonde’s Texas locations.
And they didn’t stay on the sidelines as Ducey’s stay-at-home order closed their 15 bars and clubs around the state. In March, the family signed on to a letter urging Ducey to provide a moratorium on commercial evictions and provide tax relief, among other requests.
Roughly two weeks later, Ducey delivered.
The Governor’s Office denied Arizona Capitol Times an interview with Corieri, but a spokesman for Ducey said she does not have any financial stake in her family’s business, nor is she part of the three trust funds her family has set up in Nevada and Arizona.
Corieri, a law school graduate who doesn’t practice law, is listed as the statutory agent, the person responsible for receiving official paperwork such as lawsuits, for several of the nightclubs.
The Corporation Commission website has Corieri listed as an “active” statutory agent on six different limited liability companies, at least two of which are connected to Evening Entertainment Group.
73 Dining, LLC is the owner of The Mint AZ’s liquor license, and Munchbar LLC owns the license of Hi-Fi Kitchen + Cocktails. Corieri was also the agent for 7340 LLC, which owns the license for Bottled Blonde, but she has since resigned from that position.
Scarpinato said there is no conflict of interest for Corieri because the Governor’s Office “doesn’t establish public health guidance for businesses.” He said only the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Arizona Department of Health Services have guided the state’s reopening plan for businesses.
The CDC suggests, however, that clubs and bars remain closed during “Phase One” of reopening and shouldn’t reopen until Phase Two.
State law says that any government employee who has, or whose relative has, a “substantial interest” in any government decision must disclose that interest in an official record. The Governor’s Office says no such record exists.
The law also requires conflicted employees to step out of any decision affecting their business or family business.
Ducey was already aware of Corieri’s familial ties, Scarpinato said, but since he thinks there is no conflict of interest, Corieri did not disclose anything.
Refusing to disclose conflicts of interest can carry a penalty as high as a Class Six Felony.
“I think pretty much everyone knows [her family owns Scottsdale bars],” Scarpinato said.
Corieri, the health policy adviser, had not been advising Ducey on these matters of health concern because her role during the pandemic has been limited to hospitals, health care providers and issues of unemployment, Scarpinato said.
He said Cara Christ, the state health director, either advises Ducey directly or will go through him or Daniel Ruiz, the state COO; but never Corieri or any other member of the governor’s staff.
The Governor’s Office did not provide a copy of Corieri’s job duties when asked.
Brown, Arizona PIRG’s executive director, said although Ducey knows about Corieri’s familial ties, it’s still important that the public is also aware of the potential conflict.
“Citizens can and will make their own decisions based on information and policies on whether Arizona is focused on protecting health as its top priority or if another factor such as economics tops the list,” she said of the conflict and subsequent decisions.
Brown said Ducey should already be cracking down on any business that is not following executive orders or CDC guidelines, but that is even more so for those with potential conflicts of interest within his office.
“Whether or not there is a legal conflict of interest, the perception of the conflict of interest can diminish integrity and faith in the political system,” Brown said.
Early on in the pandemic, Ducey threatened that bars and restaurants that didn’t follow social distancing guidelines were “playing with [their] liquor license.”
The Corieri family’s clubs voluntarily shut down on March 17, two weeks before Ducey issued his stay-at-home order forcing them to close. But when that order was lifted for “restaurants” to begin dine-in services again, the clubs began to host booze-filled parties that raged into the early mornings. All their venues opened on May 15.
Instagram posts from Hi-Fi Kitchen + Cocktails, for example, show women in lingerie popping champagne, and unmasked servers holding up chicken sandwiches with their bare hands.
Since Ducey’s stay at home order expired May 15, COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed, a trend health experts link to the reopening of the economy, despite the well-known recommendations to maintain social distancing, wear masks in public when social distancing isn’t possible, and practice frequent hand washing.
After May 15, cases across the state – in particular, the percentage of positive cases and hospitalizations – began to increase rapidly. When Ducey lifted his stay-at-home order, the state had 13,169 total positive cases. More than one month later, that number climbed to 59,974.
At a May 28 press briefing, Ducey brushed off criticism about the packed clubs over the Memorial Day weekend and chided reporters for focusing on “bad actors.”
And he laughed off a question about whether the nightclubs in Old Town Scottsdale serve food, making them eligible to reopen.
“I don’t go to the clubs in Scottsdale,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously reported that the Arizona Department of Liquor would consult with Christina Corieri, a statutory agent for multiple companies associated with her family’s nightclub business, on liquor license complaints. In fact, Corieri is not the statutory agent for the liquor licenses – only the corporations – and would not be the point of contact on liquor licenses matters.