Republican congressional candidate and former Arizona senator Steve Montenegro's "revenge porn" scandal looks like a good, old-fashioned Arizona dirty politics story.
This story has more holes than the border fence and more fun political intrigue than other news media are reporting.
But first, the latest:
• Kent Lyons, the alleged ex-boyfriend of Stephanie Holford, the Arizona Senate staffer who sent Montenegro at least one topless photo of herself and maybe more, denied — through his attorney — stealing Holford's data and shopping it to the news media.
"Anyone who would allege that my client Kent Lyons has engaged in any crime or civil wrongdoing is grossly misinformed on both the facts and the law," said Jason Lamm, a local criminal defense attorney.
Lamm said his client hasn't authorized him to say anything else, including why he has retained a lawyer.
• Lyons, Phoenix New Times has learned, is the business partner and campaign consultant of State Senator Bob Worsley, a Mesa Republican. New Times could not immediately determine if Worsley is backing anyone in the Congressional District 8 race, and Worsley won't answer follow-up questions.
• Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan tweeted on Friday night that Montenegro has had "extracurricular 'activities'" with "a House staffer, an ADE staffer, & now Senate staff? Worst kept secrets at the Capitol."
Did he not think his extracurricular "activities" would come out? A House staffer, an ADE staffer, & now Senate staff? Worst kept secrets at the Capitol.— Michele Reagan (@VoteReagan) February 24, 2018
Reagan's snarky, scandal-mongering tweet adds even more fuel to the fire lit this week under Montenegro's campaign.
Montenegro is a married Christian minister who espouses family values. The revelation that he has been cavorting in cyberspace with a Senate staffer, first reported by Channel 12 (KPNX-TV) reporter Brahm Resnik on Tuesday, sent a shockwave into the CD8 race.
A crowded field of 12 Republican candidates are battling it out, and Montenegro is leading the pack to fill the seat vacated by the disgraced Trent Franks.
The primary election is Tuesday.
Also new on Friday, Senator Worsley elaborated on his and Lyons' roles in the drama.
Worsley said that he and his wife had breakfast with Holford on January 31, after he learned that Holford and Montenegro had an "affair." He also said he told her to hire an attorney.
"I heard about Stephanie's alleged involvement with former Senator Steve Montenegro, and as her previous employer and Senate associate, my wife and I invited her to breakfast when we heard about her affair with Montenegro to recommend legal counsel, which she ultimately hired," Worsley told New Times. "She is someone we care about and we wish her the best.
"Kent Lyons met and started dating Stephanie while she worked in our Mesa office between her internship at the Senate and her full-time employment starting a year ago," Worsley added.
Holford, 31, who has a prison record, worked as a Senate intern in 2016 and became the full-time digital media coordinator for the Arizona Senate Republican Caucus on January 3, 2017, records show.
About a month later, she and Montenegro began texting each other on a regular basis. Holford, via her pro bono attorney, said the relationship never got physical.
Montenegro comes off in this looking like a dope and a moral hypocrite. The texts show he and Holford flirted, and that maybe they hoped to get physical at some point.
But his actions may not cost him the congressional primary. As New Times' Antonia Farzan reported on Thursday, more than three-quarters of voters have already mailed in their ballots.
His main competitor, former state senator Debbie Lesko, has her own ongoing scandal. She's threatening another GOP CD8 candidate, Phil Lovas, with a lawsuit for claiming she illegally transferred campaign money.
Yet despite all the media attention to the "Montenegro's a scoundrel" angle of this story, several questions remain worth exploring:
• Who's most responsible for leaking the texts and topless photo to the press?
• Were any political candidates or their supporters behind it?
• Is Holford really a victim?
"Sadly this woman has become a victim of revenge porn of having her personal messages stolen and shopped around by my political opponents," Montenegro told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday night.
Yet maybe it's true that, as in Ryan's version of events, this might have nothing to do with politics at all.
Montenegro's competitors may have played a role in making sure the texts and photo got leaked — or maybe they didn't. This may be just about Lyons and Holford, and the timing of the election is a coincidence.
Or maybe it's about Lyons wanting to sink Montenegro at the same time he gets back at his ex, Holford. Lyons moves in the upper echelons of Arizona politics and conceivably could be interested in the CD8 race. His motives are unknown at this time.
Lyons hung up on New Times on Friday. He also didn't return a text message asking about Holford. Montenegro and Holford haven't returned repeated calls from New Times.
Ryan chatted with New Times for a while Friday morning before he heard a question he didn't like and hung up.
On Thursday, Ryan held a news conference in which he read a statement from Holford and released CDs with numerous pages containing printouts of Apple iMessages between Montenegro and Holford. No photos were released.
Lyons, the ex-boyfriend, spent the night at Holford's house after they broke up, Ryan said, and in the middle of the night he accessed the iMessages on her computer that were duplicates of the messages on her mobile phone.
The messages clearly show that Montenegro "groomed" the woman for sexual exploitation, Ryan explained. Montenegro was a "predator," he said. He took advantage of a "vulnerable, young woman" who was trying to get her life back together, he told reporters.
In fact, the texts are mostly innocuous. They do show that two consenting adults were friends and liked chatting with each other. Neither used a state phone for the texting, most of which was done off regular business hours.
Last year, while Montenegro was out of state, Holford sent him the topless photo, which the texts show Montenegro hadn't requested. But instead of saying, "Whoa, that was inappropriate!" he suggested that she "should have come" out of town with him. And he told her to move to "Snap."
According to Holford, via her attorney, that incident preceded numerous occasions in which Holford sent Montenegro nude photos on Snapchat, which automatically erases messages and photos. She also had very sexually explicit chats on Snapchat, Ryan told reporters.
But Lyons apparently never got his hands on any of those. All he had were the boring texts, the topless photo, and the hints that much more had happened on Snapchat.
Ryan said twice at the news conference that the pair sent photos "back and forth" to each other. But he clarified on Friday that Montenegro never sent any photo to her, that he knows of.
In the texts, Montenegro states that he wanted to show her a photo of his leg swollen from an injury, but decided not to.
Ryan explained that he got involved with Holford because "somebody contacted me."
That somebody told him that Holford was a whistle-blower who had information about Montenegro, Ryan said. He made it seem as if he had permission to use the data he had, the lawyer said.
"My girlfriend wants to reveal some damaging information about Senator Montenegro," Ryan said the man told him. The man said his girlfriend was "skittish" about the process.
The man soon brought Holford to Ryan's Chandler office, Ryan said, where the lawyer realized the man didn't have permission to use Holford's documents. He took Holford to a different room, he said.
He "could tell she was incredibly distraught."
"She was embarrassed, she didn't want to do this, she was stuck and she didn't know which way to turn," he said. She asked, "Do I really have to do this?" and said she didn't want the information that the ex-boyfriend had made public.
Oddly, it was only after several pointed questions by reporters on Thursday that Ryan acknowledged that the man who brought Holford to his office was, in fact, Lyons.
The stories by Ryan and Senator Worsley about how Ryan met Holford don't quite match, and raise interesting questions. For instance, why would Worsley send Lyons and Holford to meet a lawyer when Lyons supposedly ripped off Holford?
Ryan didn't respond to follow-up questions on Friday asking how to square the two differing tales of how Ryan came to know Holford. Worsley said on Saturday that he had nothing further to add.
Ryan said that after meeting Lyons and Holford, he later sent Lyons a strong email telling him he could be legally liable for even discussing the material, much less disseminating it.
But Lyons "shopped" the material around regardless, Ryan alleged. Channel 12 and the Arizona Republic soon produced articles based on the allegedly pilfered material.
Potentially, Holford could file criminal charges against Lyons or others involved for "revenge porn."
Under Arizona law, even the mere offering of nude pictures of someone without their consent to another person could be a felony.
Ryan said at the news conference that Montenegro's competitor, Debbie Lesko, had nothing to do with the leak of texts.
Barrett Marson, a campaign consultant for Lesko, spent much of this week slamming Montenegro for the texts on Twitter.
"Hey @DrJamesCDobson," he tweeted on Wednesday, a day after the story broke. "Here is the guy you are supporting with your endorsement. Is this the kind of family values guy you want to endorse?"
"Dont worry, @SteveMontenegro still uses @Snap," he tweeted on Thursday. "But just for family photos."
But Marson agreed with Ryan that neither he, nor the Lesko campaign, had anything to do with the leak.
"It's self-created by Montenegro," Marson said of the scandal.
Richard Mack, former sheriff of Graham County, was among those trying to capitalize on the scandal this week: "Right now, conservatives have two choices in #AZ08's coming special election: Phil Lovas or me, Sheriff Richard Mack," he tweeted on Friday.
Ryan minimized the idea that politics were involved at all, speculating that Lyons was upset. "This is a person with whom he had been in a romantic relationship," the attorney said. "He probably had reasons, had some knowledge of this kind of a relationship between her and Mr. Montenegro."
Yet he jumped at the opportunity to go nuclear on Montenegro and his campaign, calling him names including "moral toad," and saying the public should consider one of the many of the other CD8 candidates besides Montenegro.
"This isn't just my political statement ... this guy needs to go," he told reporters.
Holford ultimately released more information than Lyons ever had on her relationship with Montenegro.
Months after they had broken off their relationship, whatever its nature, Montenegro texted her after Franks' scandal to find out if she was going to betray him.
"Yeah you would never ever have to worry about me,” she texted him. “So I hope that puts you at some ease."
The other media first broke the story on Tuesday, revealing neither their source of the texts nor Holford's name. Their source showed them the topless photo but would not allow copies, Channel 12 and the Arizona Republic reported.
Ryan said Holford decided to reveal more about her story largely because of Wednesday's New Times article, which revealed her name and Arizona Department of Corrections mugshot. He said he planned Thursday's news conference only after that article, and a Wednesday Washington Examiner article in which Montenegro denied he had an "inappropriate relationship" with Holford.
In the Examiner article, Montenegro claimed that the first time Holford sent him a nude photo, he told his wife and cut off all communication with her.
"At no time have I been inappropriately involved with any staffer — nor have I ever. I have not solicited inappropriate material via text message or any other message," he told the paper.
While he didn't solicit the photo, "inappropriate" is subjective. As Ryan pointed out, Holford insists their sexting never blossomed into a real love affair.
But in her statement at the press conference, Holford went beyond the the details revealed in the material that Lyons had allegedly swiped from her.
She and Ryan portrayed her as a victim of Montenegro's "grooming." At first they were just friendly to each other, she said, and then Montenegro starting sharing personal information. He said to call her Steve, not Senator.
"Over the months we began to flirt," she wrote in her statement. "I felt comfortable enough with the relationship that I began to send pictures of myself in various states of undress. Senator Montenegro asked me to send them on Snapchat instead. We engaged in sexual conversation about these pictures. These were detailed and intimate."
It's difficult to reconcile her wild side with the idea that she's a victim. When Holford was 19, in 2006, she got wasted with her brother in a car and hit an airport shuttle, injuring three people. She began a seven-year term in 2008. She wasn't a model prisoner, being found guilty over the years of promoting contraband, theft, and being out of an assigned area.
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But Ryan says she has changed. As he explained, she kept up a 4.0 grade point average at the University of Arizona after she got out of prison. She was still employed at the Arizona Senate as Thursday, but was considering quitting.
"It was never my intent to make this affair public," she wrote. "But now that my name and image have been brought out in public I am taking accountability for my part in all this. I apologize profusely for my involvement in this matter. I want to move on in my efforts to rebuild by life."
When New Times asked Ryan if that meant she wouldn't have taken accountability if her name hadn't been revealed, Ryan said angrily, "Good day!" and hung up the phone.
Correction: This article previously stated there are 16 GOP candidates for the primary; there were actually 12. (Some dropped out earlier in the race.)