Cortes-gate Unravels, and All Arizona Needs Is a Prosecutor Willing to Do His Job

I had an interesting conversation following the recent debate between state Senate President Russell Pearce and his recall opponent, Republican Jerry Lewis, at Mesa's East Valley Institute of Technology.

As I was speaking with Pearce's brother Lester, a Justice of the Peace, and listening to him apologize profusely for angrily grabbing freelance newshound Dennis Gilman's video camera just before the forum, a tall gent walked up and said something snide to me about my columnizing.

He identified himself as Summit Consulting's Chad Willems, a Republican political operative who is managing Pearce's campaign along with the notorious Chuck Coughlin of High Ground Public Affairs, the man who pulls Governor Jan Brewer's strings.

Willems is no slouch, either, as he runs Sheriff Joe Arpaio's well-funded re-election campaign.

His presence lent me the opportunity to ask him about a meeting that Lewis' campaign manager, Anson Clarkson, stumbled upon weeks back. This, before sham candidate Olivia Cortes was forced from hiding and made — through the pro bono efforts of attorneys Tom Ryan and H. Micheal Wright — officially to withdraw her candidacy

Clarkson thought he was going to a Tea Party function in Mesa but was told by Willems that the coffee klatch actually was a campaign meeting for Pearce.

At the meeting, Clarkson told me, were (among others) the senator, Lester Pearce, Willems, and Greg Western, the East Valley Tea Party chairman responsible for recruiting Cortes to run as a diversionary candidate, meant to siphon votes away from Lewis.

When I asked Willems about this gathering, he played dumb at first. But then I turned to Lester Pearce and reminded him that he was there, which he freely admitted. Willems then had to own up to being present, too, though he said he didn't remember meeting Western.

"I don't believe I talked to Greg Western," Willems said. "I know the name. I met about a hundred people that night. It was my first Tea Party meeting . . . I'm a North Scottsdale guy; it was the first one I've ever been to."

I asked Willems whether he knew about Western and his Tea Party pals' putting Cortes on the ballot.

"Not until I read it in the paper," he claimed.

Was the Cortes candidacy discussed at this meeting?

"Not that I know of," Willems said. "I was outside loading up signs. [The Tea Party people] said they were taking care of internal business at their meeting. And after that, we were the guests there. We walked in and told them we needed their support."

Nevertheless, Willems confessed that he did ask Clarkson to leave because Pearce's campaign strategy was on the agenda.

Russell Pearce has denied knowing anything about the Cortes candidacy, in spite of the fact that his friends and family members circulated petitions for Cortes.

Perhaps he does have some "plausible deniability." When the Tea Partiers discussed "internal business," Willems and Pearce supposedly waited outside. Quite convenient.

I then wondered about Willems' unique political partnership with Constantin Querard, the guy running an independent expenditure committee on behalf of Pearce and the guy whom many believe ultimately was behind the Cortes effort — though Querard has denied this.

"We usually work on opposite sides," Willems told me, adding, "I'm a Republican consultant. He's a consultant. He's got his candidates. I run mine. Often times, we're at odds. I know him; we're not friends. He's not the kind of guy I'd go and have a beer with."

And yet I suspect that all these political consultants — Willems, Querard, and Coughlin — are well aware of the shenanigans perpetrated by various members of the Pearce campaign.

It's also tough to digest Pearce's denials. After the debate, Pearce was surrounded by members of the news media. Like Willems, he said he learned of his supporters and family members' shilling for Cortes by reading the newspaper. He said he confronted his nieces, who circulated Cortes petitions, and they broke down in tears.

What about Constantin Querard's bag of dirty tricks?

In a private Facebook message from July, first exposed by Channel 12's Brahm Resnik, Querard sought to recruit LD 18 "patriots" to run in the recall election.

Querard later told Resnik he was attempting to recruit Democrats to run, though it makes no sense that he'd ask this of fellow Republicans. And in any case, Querard has operated a pro-Pearce independent expenditure committee, Arizona Deserves the Best, since February. He is prohibited by state statute from coordinating his activities with candidates.

This explains Pearce's slithery replies to my questions.

"Constantin Querard is not working on my [behalf] — that I know of," he said after the debate.

I pointed out that Querard had challenged signatures in favor of the recall, submitted by Citizens for a Better Arizona.

"I didn't organize that. He may have. You're asking if I know?" Pearce shot back as I pressed him.

"Does he have a direct connection to Olivia Cortes?" I asked.

"Ask him," Pearce said. "I don't know."

It should be noted that Querard has crowed about his access to Pearce in the past, and previously, Pearce has been overheard telling a supporter to contact Querard to help out with vetting opposition signatures.

"If laws were broken in the Cortes affair, should they be enforced?" I inquired of the state Senate president.

"If laws were broke, I'm a believer in the rule of law," he said.

"Even if it involves members of your own family?" I wondered.

"My family didn't break any laws," he replied.

Pearce, his brother, his nieces, and his Tea Party allies probably believe this Cortes business will blow over. After all, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne has endorsed Pearce's re-election bid, and Horne so far has refused to look into Cortes-gate.

Yet the Arizona Secretary of State's Office dutifully is investigating the provenance of Cortes' mysterious campaign signs, and if evidence of wrongdoing is discovered, it will turn the matter over to the AG, who, you can anticipate, will sit on it 'til Judgment Day.

This is the many-tentacled octopus of corruption that is Arizona. And it is the reason such obvious election fraud is countenanced.

Recently, when I phoned Petition Pros owner Diane Burns to ask who paid her for her signature-soliciting services in the Cortes campaign, she seemed shocked.

"It's all over with, isn't it?" she asked.

Still, she declined to tell me who paid her, and she denied Querard was involved, though she had dropped the name "Constantin" when I confronted her in early September as she gathered signatures for Cortes outside the Mesa Public Library.

Tom Ryan had subpoenaed her to appear at a second hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court, but the hearing was canceled after Cortes dropped out. That is, he had tried to subpoena her. Burns purposely evaded direct service of the subpoena, according to Ryan. (Ryan says Querard similarly evaded service.)

When I queried Burns about having dodged Ryan's private detective's attempt to hand her a subpoena, she hung up.

Other sources have suggested that Cortes, as dumb as she appeared on the stand before Judge Edward Burke, was aware that her purpose in running was to split the vote, even though she stated under oath that she was "in it to win."

Western has bragged openly of recruiting Cortes to run for Pearce's benefit, and he admitted that Cortes knew what was what, these sources say.

"Cortes maintained that this was her way of serving her country, by helping Pearce," one source remembered Western stating.

Mike Wright, Ryan's co-counsel and a Lewis supporter, recently penned an op-ed titled "Mesa's Watergate," which you can read on my Feathered Bastard blog.

He observes that the lawsuit he and Ryan brought against Cortes "served as a tool to remove a sham candidate" and that case law has held that running a diversionary candidate is in violation of the Arizona Constitution.

Moreover, Arizona Revised Statute 16-1006 makes it a class 5 felony to defraud a voter by "corrupt means or influence."

The actions of those in the Pearce camp make it plain that they knew they were doing something wrong.

"The fact that there are secret conspiring actors who are unquestionably supporters of Russell Pearce," Ryan's co-counsel writes, "and that they [choose] to remain anonymous, tells us that they recognize that what they have done is illegal or at least embarrassing."

Wright's the lawyer, but I think the emphasis should be on "illegal," as I don't think those in Pearce's craven crew are capable of embarrassment.

On the other hand, they might be afraid of breaking the law or, more likely, getting caught breaking the law — if Arizona's Attorney General had an inkling of doing the right thing.

Coughlin, Willems, Querard, Cortes, Russell Pearce, and the rest should be under the hot lights of a state investigation for their involvement in Cortes-gate. That they're not is something all Arizonans should be ashamed of.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons