Lawmakers, farmers balk at agriculture lab move

The building housing the state agriculture lab, located at 1520 W. Adams St., is slated to be demolished early next year. PHOTO BY PAULINA PINEDA/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES
The building housing the state agriculture lab, located at 1520 W. Adams St., is slated to be demolished early next year. PHOTO BY PAULINA PINEDA/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES

The Arizona Department of Agriculture plans to move its laboratory from the Capitol Mall to a building in Chandler, despite opposition from lawmakers and the industry.

Fifteen state legislators sent a letter late last month to Agriculture Director Mark Killian asking that the department refrain from moving forward with a lease agreement for a new building in Chandler until the issue could be further studied.

They said that the yearly rent at the new building was roughly three times more than what the Legislature approved in this year’s budget to cover rent at the existing location, and that the department was proposing to use a fund sweep, outside of the budgetary process, to cover the costs.

According to the letter, the relocation would cost between $500,000 and $900,000 in the first year alone, plus $400,000 every year after that in rent.

Lawmakers suggested that the department contract with a private laboratory or consider moving the lab into a state-run building until a less expensive solution could be found.

But the opposition effort, which is being spearheaded by Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, was futile.

In response to lawmakers’ concerns, Killian said the department explored all of its options and the Chandler location was the most viable. He said the Agriculture Department and the Arizona Department of Administration are working to make the move in December.

In an August 10 letter, Killian said the department’s lab is currently housed in a building that “has reached the end of its useful life,” and it must be relocated.


The lab, located at 1520 W. Adams Street, is one of two buildings adjacent to an ADOA parking lot that are slated to be demolished early next year, ADOA spokeswoman Megan Rose said.

Rose said the decision to demolish the building and another building that houses the state’s data center is part of ADOA’s capital improvement plan and has been in the works for a while. The demolition was approved by the Joint Committee on Capital Review on July 24.

The state agriculture lab is charged with performing laboratory testing, certifying government, industry and private labs that provide agricultural services, and it also conducts agriculture product and residue testing – services that are all required under state statute.

Killian said because of the critical work the laboratory is charged with carrying out, it was imperative to find a suitable location that could meet the state’s need. It wasn’t an easy task, however.

Rose said before deciding on the Chandler location, ADOA looked at moving the lab to a state-owned space on the Capitol Mall, but none of the existing buildings had the necessary square footage or infrastructure.

ADOA also met with University of Arizona officials to see if space could be made available at a university laboratory, but Rose said that wasn’t a viable option. Killian wrote in his letter that the university responded to the state’s inquiry with a proposal to lease space to the department that would cost $10 million up-front for tenant improvements and an annual rent of $500,000, which he said was cost-prohibitive

Killian said the department also looked into partnering with a private lab, but because the state is required to certify food safety, outsourcing the work wasn’t an option. He said if the department outsourced the work, state statute would still require the department to certify the private lab’s results, which would lead to “operational duplication and cost increases that would not add value.”

He said the Agriculture Department used a state-contracted real estate broker and ADOA conducted two searches for properties. After reviewing 20 properties that were identified in the searches, the agencies settled on a multipurpose property in Chandler near Loops 101 and 202.

The lease agreement would exempt the department from paying rent for the first seven months of a seven-year lease. The annual cost of renting the building is $438,300 in fiscal year 2020 and $473,100 through the end of the lease in 2026, more than lawmakers had initially anticipated.

The department will also have to pay the first $500,000 in tenant improvement costs and the landlord will cover additional costs. Killian said the property contains space that is currently built out as a laboratory, minimizing the amount of work that will need to be carried out prior to moving in.

And he estimated that the cost for the physical relocation of the laboratory will be roughly $100,000.

That would bring the total the department will be on the hook for in fiscal year 2019 to $600,000.

The department’s decision to move forward with the relocation has led industry leaders to reach out to the Governor’s Office in hopes of coming up with a better solution, Cook said.

He said leaders from the Arizona Cotton Growers Association, Western Growers Association, Arizona Nursery Association and the Arizona Crop Improvement Association met this week with Hunter Moore, Gov. Doug Ducey’s natural resources policy adviser, in an effort to find an alternate solution to relocating the lab.

Cook said the Legislature and industry leaders should have been involved in discussions since the beginning, and he said the department is steamrolling agriculture producers who pay into the fund that is being used to cover relocation costs.

Kevin Rogers, executive vice-president of the Cotton Growers Association, said the groups’ major concern is that they weren’t made aware of the proposed relocation until just recently, even though the demolition of the building has been on ADOA’s radar for months.

He said the industry has also taken issue with how the department plans to pay for the relocation, which he said the industry sees as a fund sweep.

“We’re not happy with the fund sweeps at all. These are dollars that we self-tax ourselves for specific uses and we’re not happy any time you sweep funds, especially without much discussion in the process at all,” he said.

In his response to lawmakers, Killian said the department has long had the authority to use revenues collected from fees to “facilitate the administration of key agriculture laboratory functions.”

“In fact, four of the five funds have historically been used for this purpose,” he wrote.

Rogers said the groups are hoping to work with the Governor’s Office, the Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting, and the Agriculture Department to come up with a more cost-efficient solution that will still meet the department’s needs.

He said one option they are advocating for is partnering with the UofA, which has an extensive lab program at the Maricopa Agriculture Center, and he said industry leaders are pushing the department to continue conversations with the university to see if they can strike a deal.

“Are there other options short of spending the type of dollars they’re proposing to spend?” Rogers said. “Maybe the answer is ‘no,’ but we’d like to have a dialogue to make sure we’re spending tax dollars and grower dollars the best possible way. We completely agree we need a new lab. The existing lab is falling apart and the building is being condemned. However, we wish we would have been involved in the discussion back in the spring when the Legislature was in session so that they could have helped us with a solution and so that we would have had a little bit more time to come up with some more options rather than just jumping right into a new facility.”

Love letters from lawmaker to lobbyist raise ethical questions

A Republican lawmaker sent nearly 100 pages of intimate letters to an agriculture lobbyist, shedding light on an apparent love affair that has put one of them at the center of controversy and the other under formal investigation by her employer. 

Although both deny having a romantic relationship, the letters show the deep affection Rep. David Cook has for AnnaMarie Knorr, a lobbyist with the Western Growers Association, and his intimate familiarity with her personal life, raising the spectre of a potential conflict of interest. 

Rep. David Cook
Rep. David Cook

While it’s natural for Cook, a rancher from Globe, to sponsor and vote for legislation benefiting agricultural interests and the Growers Association, his letters create questions whether he remains objective in his capacity as a state representative, or whether the groups Knorr works for receive preferential treatment from Cook.

In the letters, Cook talked at length both about his affection for Knorr and also about state business.

“I deeply love you, and on many occasions I find myself trying to protect me from being hurt by having these deep feelings for you,” he wrote in one letter.

In another section, he mentions a fundraiser he attended. He speculates that Knorr’s father, powerful cattle industry lobbyist Bas Aja, did not contribute to the group holding the fundraiser “because of you.”

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, told the Arizona Capitol Times that although he was aware of the rumors swirling around Knorr’s and Cook’s apparent affair, he did not have enough information to offer a specific comment. 

He said that he hadn’t read the letters, though he wasn’t happy with the situation. 

“If you ask me if I like it, I don’t like it at all,” he said. 

Bowers said he hasn’t launched any kind of formal inquiry into the matter but will do his own investigation before deciding if any formal action is necessary, noting he has yet to talk to Cook about the allegations. 

“I’m going to investigate it. To come to some opinion, I need to read letters. I need to know – is there a background to this? What’s the situation in its entirety?” he said. 

Cook has not been removed from any of his committee assignments and is still voting on legislation. That’s a stark contrast to how the Western Growers Association has handled matters on its end. 

Dave Puglia, executive vice president of the Western Growers Assn, said in a written statement that his organization is “aware of the allegations of professional misconduct by one of our employees,” and that the organization placed Knorr on administrative leave pending an investigation.

The group said Knorr has denied the allegations.

“Western Growers holds itself and its employees to the highest standards of professional conduct. We are also committed to the fundamental notions of fairness and due process. Therefore, Ms. Knorr has been placed on administrative leave pending our investigation into the matter. We will have no further comment while the investigation is pending,” Puglia said.

Cook has been the prime sponsor of several bills Knorr backed on behalf of her clients, and she contributed $455 to Cook’s campaigns in 2018 and this year.

Cook started writing the signed and handwritten love letters to Knorr after she took time off from work to focus on her health last fall.

Although Cook initially denied knowing anything about the letters, he eventually insisted that his relationship with Knorr is purely platonic. 

“OK, all I can say is my friends, when I’ve needed help, have been there to help me. And I will be there to help my friends in whatever struggle they’re going through,” Cook told Capitol Times’ sister publication, Yellow Sheet Report, which first broke the news of the letters.

AnnaMarie Knorr
AnnaMarie Knorr

Knorr has not returned multiple calls seeking comment, but the Arizona Republic later reported that Knorr said their relationship was not inappropriate and that she and Cook are the subject of a smear campaign by her husband and her father, who she said didn’t want her to end her marriage.

Aja didn’t respond to the Republic’s attempt to get his side of the story, but told the Yellow Sheet Report that’s not what it’s about. 

“We want to limit the exposure to very bad influences in her life. As a father, my primary concern is my daughter and the family, not the state Capitol,” he said in a text message. 

Cook was arrested for drunk driving in December 2018 with a blood alcohol content of nearly twice the legal limit. He pleaded guilty to DUI after prosecutors agreed to drop the extreme DUI charge. As part of that plea deal, Cook attended a court-mandated substance abuse treatment program.

Aja makes several appearances in Cook’s letters to Knorr, including one passage where Cook laments that Aja is trying to keep them apart. 

“Last night I could not stand it anymore and answered your dad’s text. The one where he said not to text, email or call you. I replied ‘What ever you think – you should never have stopped trusting me.’ The truth is, he never did. I was and am just a tool to him – to be used. But that’s OK,” Cook wrote. 

Some letters were adorned with sketches and hearts, even a portion of a crossword puzzle he drew for her. In others, he talked about work, legislation, water policy and the Drought Contingency Plan, interspersed with romantic passages.  

In one section, he references a trip he wanted to take with other lawmakers in a helicopter owned by Salt River Project to see highway traffic as part of his plan to secure funding for the North-South Pinal Corridor, asking Knorr for advice on who else to invite on the ride. 

The House has no formal rules prohibiting relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists. But lobbyists must obey two sets of rules, according to veteran Arizona lobbyist Barry Aarons, the written rules and the unwritten.

On one hand, they have to follow the law, which means there are limits on the exchange of goods, cash or favors between a lobbyist and a legislator. On the other hand, lobbyists are also “governed by unwritten rules of propriety and optics,” he said. 

This means that lobbyists have to be conscious of their relationships with lawmakers so as not to create the perception of improper behavior or a conflict of interest. 

Aarons quoted former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who, when asked to define obscenity, answered: “I know it when I see it.” 

He hesitated to speak directly on the Cook allegations, though he pointed out there is no evidence of either party exchanging sex for favors. 

“Do I have lawmakers I consider friends? Yes,” he said. “Have I written them 100 letters? Of course not.”

Female lobbyists in particular must deal with a perception, however unearned, that they’ll engage in inappropriate relationships with lawmakers, said Amy Love, a longtime Supreme Court lobbyist who now works in communications.

“I always thought it was best not to go to lunch, not to go to drinks,” she said. “Even with the great lengths I went to, there were still rumors that were completely untrue.”

This is the third major, public scandal involving a House Republican in as many years. In 2018, the House voted to expel then-Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, after several women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against him. The next year, Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, resigned after refusing to cooperate with an ethics probe into 1983 charges that he molested two young boys while living in Maryland. 

And while Cook’s 2018 DUI was overshadowed by more salacious stories about Stringer, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez said it also damaged the House’s ability to work. Fernandez, D-Yuma, said she considers Cook’s behavior “sophomoric,” but that whether he should resign over it is a decision he’ll have to make. 

“Since I’ve been here, it was Shooter and Stringer, and then Cook and now Cook again. I gotta tell you, and I’m not acting like Pollyanna because I am not Pollyanna, this puts a real dark cloud over the session already,” said Fernandez. “We were all very excited about coming back.”

Julia Shumway and Dillon Rosenblatt contributed to the reporting of this story.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from its original form to include more information as well as quotes from House Speaker Rusty Bowers, Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, lobbyist Barry Aarons and former lobbyist Amy Love.