Russell Pearce's Tea Party on Trial: Olivia Cortes Plays "Useful Idiot"

Tea Party tool Olivia Cortes: Did she commit perjury?
Tea Party tool Olivia Cortes: Did she commit perjury?
Jack Kurtz

Election law attorney Tom Ryan may not get Legislative District 18 recall candidate Olivia Cortes booted from the November 8 ballot, but on Thursday, with the assistance of co-counsel H. Michael Wright,  Ryan effectively put the Tea Party on trial. And at least metaphorically, the verdict was guilty.

Through the examination under oath of Cortes, Cortes' main campaign adviser and East Valley Tea Party chairman Greg Western, and various other Tea Party flunkies, Ryan revealed a conspiracy by members of the East Valley Tea Party to place a sham candidate on the ballot, hatched, apparently from a Mesa Denny's, of all places.

In a six hour hearing before Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Edward Burke, Tea Party members admitted that they had worked to put Cortes on the ballot, despite the fact that all of them are passionate supporters of state Senate President Russell Pearce, the man being recalled, and the self-described leader of the "Tea Party Senate."

EVTP member and Pearce-loyalist Dan Grimm described first discussing Cortes' candidacy at a Denny's restaurant following a regular Tea Party function in Mesa. Republican Legislative District 19 third vice chair Pat Oldroyd talked of picking up nominating petitions at a EVTP meeting at a Mesa school. 

Greg Western, EVTP chairman, was the lynchpin, the person from whom others got petitions, and to whom Cortes deferred on all things, from getting her bare-bones website going, to helping with the petition drive. 

It was Western who suggested to Cortes that she would make an "awesome" candidate, after she approached him to compliment him on an address he'd given at the Mormon ward they both attend. 

Western hired Cortes' lawyer Anthony Tsontakis, whom she had just met the day of the hearing. And it's Western who's helping to prepare her for her announced participation in an upcoming candidates' forum sponsored by the Mesa Chamber of Commerce.

Additionally, Western helped Cortes with her press releases, at least the ones Cortes acknowledged as hers. Shown one press release, she said she didn't recognize it. And she didn't know why some of the language on her Web site mimicked text attributed to Randy Parraz, co-founder of Citizens for a Better Arizona, the group that forced the recall.

Nor could she answer why both press releases' PDF files show them to have been authored by one "Paul Revere." 

Western later informed the court that "Paul Revere," a sometime commenter on the right wing Sonoran Alliance blog, was in fact a Mesan named Doug Ardt, though he confided that he and Ardt were on the outs and Ardt had been banned from having anything to do with Cortes' campaign.

Under questioning by Wright, an argumentative Western conceded that most of those who circulated the Cortes petition were affiliated with the Tea Party. Both Cortes and Western claimed they had no idea who had paid for Cortes' "Si Se Puede" signs. Ditto for the signature-gathering firm Petition Pros.

Petition Pros' owner Diane Burns had been subpoenaed to testify. But, conveniently, she was "out of town." So she could not be asked who reimbursed her for her services.

However, Petition Pros employee Suzanne Dreher answered her subpoena and took the stand. Ryan played audio of Dreher telling a potential signer that a signature on Cortes' petition would help Russell Pearce. Why? Because a third candidate would "dilute" the vote, pulling votes from Pearce's main rival, Mesa Republican Jerry Lewis.

Dreher admitted it was her voice on the recording. She had been taught the pitch by Burns. Another man had been helping her and Burns, but she couldn't remember his name. Ryan asked if it was right-wing political operative Constantin Querard. She said no, though the person she described fit Querard to a T.

Querard's name hung over the proceedings like some malevolent spirit out of the Old Testament. When Ryan at one point gave "Beelzebub and Mephistopheles" their due, everyone knew whom he was talking about. 

The day before, Channel 12's Brahm Resnik had revealed a private Facebook message sent earlier in the year by Querard, seeking shill candidates for the recall ballot. Querard told Channel 12 that he was trying to get Democrats to run. However, he also admitted that he is helping Pearce's candidacy.

Oldroyd said she'd heard that Querard was involved with the effort to obtain signatures for Cortes. Western admitted he knew Querard, but said he knew nothing of Querard's machinations. 

None of the Tea Partiers would admit that they intended Cortes to be a diversionary candidate. Grimm said that he wanted another option other than Lewis. 

"Russell may not win," he explained. And since he didn't like Lewis, he saw Cortes as an alternative. 

Wright challenged the logic of that, since, obviously, Pearce was still in the race. Why not just work harder for Pearce?

"You can play the odds that way," Grimm stated. "I hedge my bets a different way."

Perhaps the most bald-faced admission came from Franklin Bruce Ross, an EVTP member who acted as the plaintiff in Pearce's unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to stop the recall. Ross also circulated a petition sheet for Cortes, though he testified about circulating petitions in the past for Pearce, donating to Pearce, and discussing the recall with Pearce.

Ross described Tea Party members as being upset with Lewis' candidacy, because Lewis had come in through the "back door" instead of waiting to participate in a GOP primary. Cortes' candidacy was the result.

"We put her on the ballot because of that," he told the court.

The bald, beefy and oddly affable Ross claimed he and his Tea Party pals didn't know there was a law against what they were doing. 

But there is, A.R.S. 16-1006, which makes it a class five felony 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." It's also a violation of the Arizona Constitution, and there is a 1959 Arizona Supreme Court ruling, Griffin vs. Buzard, which backs up the contention that running a diversionary candidate falls foul of the law.

The irony of the EVTP adopting the same tactics they've alleged of left-wing groups such as ACORN was not lost on Ryan. He lambasted the Tea Party for its chicanery.

"It's really shameful that these people who claim to be patriots, did something very unpatriotic," Ryan said in his closing statement. "How can you claim to be a patriot...when you put up a sham candidate and [have] defiled the purity of elections that's supposed to be maintained through this process."

What of Cortes herself? She came across as clueless and ignorant, a "useful idiot" to borrow the phrase attributed to V.I. Lenin. In broken English, she stammered through the proceedings, insisting she was "in it to win," while at the same time knowing precious little about her own campaign.

The 59 year-old retiree described herself as a "private person," despite contesting the most powerful man in Arizona. She said she was not a Tea Party member, but confessed under questioning that she does subscribe to a Tea Party TV Web site.

As for her hiding out from the public and the press, she complained of being bothered at her home, though her home is listed as her campaign's address.

"I been harassed every which way, phone calls, e-mails," she kvetched at one point. 

At another, she complained, "I don't need all these people on my door all hours of the day and night."

This is one reason I have no sympathy for Cortes. If she wants to be a private person, the easiest way to do that would be to stay out of politics. Granted, other than a high-school diploma and some classes at Mesa Community College, she is uneducated. But that is no excuse for her actions, particularly if she has perjured herself.

She claimed no knowledge of how signs in her name boasting the United Farm Workers' motto "Si, Se Puede" were produced and posted. (Western also played ignorant on this one.) She first saw them driving around Mesa, she said.

She didn't know what the term "intellectual property" meant, and did not know the phrase "Si, Se Puede" is owned by the UFW. She later learned that the phrase had its origin with Cesar Chavez. What did she know of it before?

"I seen it in the marches," she told the court. When asked which marches, she could not say.

Though news reports have her taking ownership of the signs in communications with the City of Mesa, she said on the stand that they were not hers and she had not paid for them. 

Indeed, she insisted that she has paid for nothing related to her campaign so far, neither her Web site, nor Petition Pros. Though in an interview with ABC 15 aired last night, she said she had paid for the Web site.

She avowed she would be paying her lawyer, though she has only $500 in the bank. And she said she would be paying for fliers to pass out on her behalf. Who is designing the fliers? She had no idea. 

"Greg is in charge of that," she said.

Even Judge Burke marveled at the fact some "good Samaritan" had paid for, designed, and disseminated Cortes' signs without consulting Cortes or Western. Considering that the signs' production was likely expensive, he found it "hard to believe," and questioned Cortes' attorney Tsontakis about them in a humorous exchange after Tsontakis had finished his summation.

"You honor, I'm not sure I'm the correct person to ask that question [of]," Tsontakis replied.

"Well, you're the only one up here now, so I'm stuck with you," said Burke, jokingly.

"Honestly, I don't know how to answer that question," Tsontakis stated.

Pressed by Burke, he replied, "Your honor, fortunately you're the one who has to struggle with the tough questions...Fortunate for me."

"You must've gone to law school," Burke quipped. "You're pretty good at dodging questions." 

The audience tittered. 

Burke then took the matter under advisement, promising a ruling by Monday. 

Though county elections director Karen Osborne testified that it would be expensive to reprint 70,000 mail-in ballots and difficult to address the issue of 102 ballots that had already gone out to military personnel stationed overseas, she admitted there are some alternatives. 

When a candidate dies, for instance, the deceased's name is left as is, voters are informed of the situation, and any votes for the dead party do not count. Burke asked her how she felt about the possibility that the ballots might have a fraudulent candidate on them.

"We never want to be a party to something that's illegal," she avowed.

And that, to me, is the ultimate issue. After this hearing, there should be no doubt about the nature of Cortes' candidacy or its real purpose. If Burke does not strike Cortes' name from the ballot and those ballots go out as printed, then, essentially, the county will be participating in a fraud on the electorate.

Who would be fooled by Cortes at this point? You'd be surprised. As I was waiting for the elevator after the hearing, I struck up a conversation with a woman who identified herself as a prosecutor. She asked if I'd come from courtroom 703, and wondered what all the commotion was about, as she'd been in the courtroom next to it.

I told her it was about the recall of state Senator Russell Pearce. Her face was blank, and it took a bit of explaining to get her up to speed.

Maybe she doesn't live in Mesa, but still, if you see someone's name on an election ballot, you would normally assume that person is a legitimate candidate for public office. When it comes to Olivia Cortes, this clearly is not the case.


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