Russell Pearce's Olivia Cortes Off The Hook in Petition Pros Scandal
Will questions about Pearce's Olivia Cortes scandal ever be answered? Not by prosecutors, it seems.
Olivia Cortes, the sham candidate the Tea Party fronted in order to dilute the vote in the 2011 recall of ex-state Senate President Russell Pearce, will face no fines or orders to comply in regards to the work done on her behalf by signature-gathering company Petition Pros.
Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores, whose office was charged with looking into the matter, has determined that any action in the affair is "unwarranted."
In a January 5 letter to Secretary of State Ken Bennett, Flores found that though it was "highly likely" someone connected to Cortes' campaign knew who paid for the signatures to place her name on the ballot in November, "we have no evidence to prove this connection."
At issue was whether or not Cortes should have filed the Petition Pros info as an "in-kind" contribution, but, conveniently, Cortes testified under oath in a September 29 hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court that she was ignorant of anything regarding her campaign, including who paid Petition Pros.
Before Petition Pros owner Diane Burns could be subpoenaed to testify at a second, follow-up hearing, Cortes officially withdrew her name as a candidate. The second hearing was never held, which is too bad, as eminence greasy Constantin Querard -- the man many believe to be behind the Cortes candidacy -- also would have been subpoenaed to testify.
The Secretary of State's Office had issued a reasonable cause notice on the Olivia Cortes/Petition Pros matter, and the Arizona Attorney General's Office had conflicted the matter out to Flores in Gila County.
Flores complained to me that she had "no investigative authority" under the statute to subpoena Petition Pros' owner Diane Burns and force her to fess up. She said she queried the SOS' office and Cortes attorney Anthony Tsontakis, but got bupkis.
"We asked the Secretary of State to verify who paid for the petitions with Petition Pros and we never got an answer," she explained. "And Cortes' own counsel couldn't even get an answer from Petition Pros."
Tom Ryan, the crusading attorney who brought the action in superior court last year against Cortes' campaign, scoffed at the notion that Flores, a Republican, went to Tsontakis for answers. He also noted that Flores never contacted him.
"Asking Anthony Tsontakis who put up the money [for Petition Pros] makes as much sense as asking Bernie Madoff who created the Ponzi [scheme]," he quipped.
He believes Flores fumbled the matter.
"It's not surprising," he said. "She's a politician and she's going to be a politician before what she's done here."
The Secretary of State's Office couldn't immediately answer Flores' charge that it didn't reply to her inquiries.
Today, the SOS and the AG held a press conference with slavish Pearce supporter and state Representative Eddie Farnsworth to announce plans to toughen-up state campaign finance laws to deal with so-called "Citizens United" groups, which claim they are not beholden to state statutes because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision of the same name.
One such group, Citizens United for Progress, sent out a questionable anti-Pearce mailer during the recall campaign, the investigation of which also was sent to Flores' office. In a similar letter to Bennett, Flores also found further legal pursuit of the entity "unwarranted."
The matter of who paid Petition Pros goes to the heart of the Cortes scandal, and potentially involves a class five felony, which makes it a crime to "defraud an elector by deceiving and causing him to vote for a different person for an office or for a measure than he intended or desired to vote for."
Not to mention that it runs afoul of the Arizona Constitution itself, as a 1959 Arizona Supreme Court ruling, Griffin vs. Buzard, backs up the contention that running a diversionary candidate falls foul of the law.
Cortes' name remained on the recall ballot, despite her withdrawal, and she pulled 277 votes, folks who clearly did not get the message that she was a sham.
But as Ryan pointed out, no one in authority gives a javelina's snout.
"They don't care," he said of those who should be pursuing the alleged fraud. "They really don't care."
As you may recall, one PP worker, Susan Dreher, admitted to the press that the point of putting Cortes on the ballot was to dilute the vote.
Under oath, she said PP owner Burns taught her the pitch.
When I encountered Burns outside the Mesa Library shilling for Cortes, she let drop the name "Constantin," then quickly clammed up.
When I later asked her to come clean on who paid her, she declined, asking, "It's all over with, isn't it?"
In the sense that Arizona lacks a prosecutor willing to seek the answers, yes.
But in the sense that Pearce is still plotting his comeback and running for First Vice Chair of the state GOP, no. That candidacy makes the issue as relevant as it was on November 8.
So you can thank Pearce for helping to keep the story alive.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.