Tia Oso, Protester Who Interrupted Martin O'Malley, Is Convicted Embezzler

Anshantia "Tia" Oso, one of the protesters who interrupted a Town Hall event with presidential candidates Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders on Saturday, writes in a high-profile column today that she was the "right person" to lead the halting of the program.

Oso touts her many activist qualifications in the column, but she left one thing off her bio: her 2009 conviction for embezzling thousands of dollars from a nonprofit Valley arts organization.

Oso was among the demonstrators with the #BlackLivesMatter movement who approached the stage at the annual Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix about 20 minutes into the Q&A between event moderator Jose Antonio Vargas and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.

Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and immigration activist who's in a business partnership with the Los Angeles Times, invited Oso onstage and asked stagehands to bring her a mic. Instead of asking O'Malley a question right away, though, Oso gave a speech and directed the other demonstrators for the next 15 minutes. O'Malley blundered with his politically incorrect response to the demonstrators, "black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter." The demonstrators later interrupted Sanders briefly, until the Vermont senator threatened to leave if they didn't let him speak. 

Oso followed the stunt with a column that appeared today on titled, "I Am the Black Woman Who Interrupted the Netroots Presidential Town Hall, and This Is Why." She writes that she has much in common with Sandra Bland, the activist who died in police custody last week after being arrested during a traffic stop:

"We were both black women, active in our communities and the Movement for Black Lives. We both pledged sororities: I'm a Delta, Bland was a member of Sigma Gamma Rho. I have also been harshly confronted by police during 'routine' traffic stops and feared for my safety and my life. Reading about Bland, about her life and brutal killing, the accusation of suicide, I felt devastated and enraged."

Oso goes on to say in her piece:

"I felt I was the right person to open the action and shift the focus of the program, especially in the context of the conference theme of "Immigration." I am a native to Arizona, the child of a Nigerian immigrant father and African-American mother, whose parents were migrant farm workers, aka "Okies." I also served for three years as the Arizona organizer (and continue to work as the National Organizer) with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the premier racial justice and migrant rights organization in the U.S.  As I shared in my remarks on Saturday, racial justice intersects with all progressive issues, especially immigration. Black immigrants experience a double oppression, as they must contend with both the reality of racial discrimination in America as well as its complicated and punitive immigration system."
While her social-justice creds can't be criticized, her leadership skills are stained by the fact that she once severely betrayed the trust of an employer.

While working as the business manager for the Arizona Citizens for the Arts/Arizona Action for the Arts in 2007 and 2008, a job she includes in her online résumé, Oso issued checks to herself, made unauthorized withdrawals and made personal charges on the organization's credit card. The theft occurred over the course of a year and totaled about $11,000, court records show.

Oso had walked off the job in May 2008 without explanation "after being counseled about absences and performance-related issues," records state. She was fired after she failed to show up for work for three days, and the embezzlement was apparently discovered soon afterward.

Twenty-seven at the time, Oso confessed to court officials that she used the money to pay rent, make car payments, and "stabilize her financial situation."

She pleaded guilty to one count of felony theft.

Brenda Sperduti, the organization's former executive director, told officials that the arts group, which depends on donations for its survival, "had to win back the trust of donors after this." But Sperduti also asked for leniency for Oso.

Oso was sentenced to three days in jail and two years' probation. She struggled in the past few years to pay off a $11,276 restitution order — to her credit, she finally paid it off entirely last year. After she completed her probation successfully, her felony conviction became a misdemeanor in court files. 

The arts organization bills itself online as "the eyes, ears, and voice of the nonprofit arts and culture sector in Arizona." It has a relatively small budget, notes Steve Carr, who works as its spokesman. Carr called New Times after we left a message for group's current director. Sperduti, currently CEO of the Assistance League of Arizona, didn't return a message we left seeking comment.

"This kind of situation impact on a lot of levels," Carr says.

The "good news," though, is that Oso paid back what she stole, he says. "We as an organization have moved ahead and put this thing behind us."

Oso's listed online as the national coordinator for the Black Immigration Network and Black Alliance for Just Immigration. She declined to talk to New Times about her past.

While we were interested to see if she'd comment about her theft conviction, we also wanted to ask about her scofflaw driving record — especially since she mentions her confrontations with police during traffic stops. Oso was listed as "failure to appear" in five separate traffic-court proceedings since 2006, including one from an alleged violation committed this past March.

Vargas, by the way, defended how he handled the interruption and denied any advance knowledge that the protest would occur.

"I would have loved to see how other reporters handled that," he says, adding that he felt compelled to grant Oso's request for a mic because her issue is important. "I did the best that I could given the circumstances."

UPDATE: We clarified Vargas' employment status with the LA Times. An undocumented immigrant, he's in a business relationship with the Times, but doesn't work "for" the paper.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.