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Does Russell Pearce Believe in the "Holy Lie"?

The most polite way to say it is that state Senate President Russell Pearce, facing a November 8 recall election in Legislative District 18, struggles mightily with the truth. In fact, he seems to struggle with it anytime he's in front of a camera or a microphone.

Most recently, he had a bad time of it on KTAR (92.3 FM) during Jay Lawrence's show. Lawrence is a bit of a softy, and Pearce is his pal, so he didn't exactly go after the Mesa Republican with a claw hammer. But his listeners did, to the extent they were allowed.

In fact, listening to Pearce tout his alleged achievements in public life, I couldn't keep myself from calling in. I was specifically interested in his characterization of his tenure as head of the Arizona Department of Transportation's Motor Vehicle Division as one in which great strides were made on behalf of the public.


Stephen Lemons

So before I was cut off, I queried the senator about his four years as MVD honcho in the '90s, and asked, "Weren't you fired as the head of MVD for corruption, and wasn't your son, Justin, convicted of handing out fake driver's licenses?"

Pearce interrupted the first part of my question with an absolute, "No." After I finished, Pearce went on to make it seem as if the entire controversy way back when was over his son's wrongdoing.

"I was never connected to [Justin's crime]," he explained. "In fact, the attorney general realized that I had nothing to do with it."

Justin, then 20, was allowed to resign, and later took a plea deal. To the press, he admitted that he had changed the ages on the licenses of four pals so they could "buy beer."

At that time, Pearce had several family members at the MVD, including one other son.

But the flap over Justin was not the reason Pearce was canned as MVD director. And, yes, he was fired in August 1999 by then-ADOT Director Mary Peters, a Republican, who later went on to serve in President George W. Bush's administration as Secretary of Transportation.

Why was Pearce removed? Because, according to press accounts, he and two other MVD officials had been found to have altered a Tucson woman's driving record so that she would not face a one-year suspension of her license due to two DUIs she recently had received.

Apparently, the change was made at the request of a state legislator and then-member of the House Transportation Committee.

When one of the other MVD officials suggested that he and Pearce had been cleared of wrongdoing, Peters told the Arizona Republic, "There's a big difference between being cleared and choosing not to file criminal charges."

It's understandable that Pearce would want to downplay getting kicked to the curb like this, by a fellow Republican, no less.

But his problems with truth-telling extend to numerous other issues.

Take the Fiesta Bowl scandal. Another caller to Lawrence's show asked Pearce about the nearly $40,000 in free football tickets and trips he allegedly took from the Fiesta Bowl. These included trips to Chicago and Boston to watch some pigskin get chucked around. His wife accompanied him on two of his trips. A son on at least one other.

Yet Pearce remains defiant on the matter.

"I never took a penny from the Fiesta Bowl," Pearce responded to the caller. "They've never done a fundraiser for me. I've never called them about doing a fundraiser. I have had no personal benefit from the Fiesta Bowl at all."

And yet Pearce received campaign contributions from ex-Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker, Junker's wife, Susan, as well as from Fiesta Bowl execs Anthony Aguilar, Jay Fields, and others.

You don't have to believe me. Look at Pearce's 2010 campaign-finance reports. As for the trips, they're detailed in the Fiesta Bowl's own report on the scandal.

Pearce also exclaimed that Arizona's economy is "growing" and took credit for Arizona's budget being "in the black" for the first time in recent memory.

Now keep in mind that during the supposed reign of government excess that Pearce lays at the door of former Governor Janet Napolitano, Pearce was head of the state House Appropriations Committee. If past budgets were out of whack, he deserves a fair share of the blame. He also bears some responsibility for a 66 percent rise in general-fund spending during the time he was Appropriations Chair in the House.

True, the Arizona Legislature's Joint Legislative Budget Committee recently reported an unexpected rise in revenue that has knocked out a $332 million shortfall that was being carried over to 2012.

But that had nothing to do with anything Pearce did or didn't do.

"The primary reason for the revenue overage is the unexpectedly high 18.5 increase in individual income taxes," the JLBC noted. "Given the lack of job and wage growth, this spurt may have been caused by higher capital gains and the loss of mortgage interest deductions."

Why has there been a loss of mortgage-interest deductions? The "downturn in the state's real estate market" and a "decline in mortgage interest."

The JLBC's July report further states: "The [fiscal year] 2011 rebound appears to be more a reflection of onetime factors than a rapidly expanding economy. It may still take two to four years before the state replaces the jobs lost in the recession and substantially reduces its 'underwater' mortgages.'"

Translation: Arizona's economy still is doing its impersonation of David Hasselhoff's career arc. But, then, you knew that already.

Given the Senate president's contempt for veracity, I find it very difficult to believe his contention on the Lawrence show and elsewhere that he knows nothing of the sham candidacy of Mesa resident Olivia Cortes.

According to paid petition gatherers for Cortes, who were soliciting signatures to put her name on the recall ballot at the main branch of the Mesa Public Library up until the deadline for submission to the secretary of state, the purpose of Cortes' candidacy is to "dilute" the anti-Pearce vote, siphoning it away from Pearce's nice-guy challenger Jerry Lewis, a Mesa Republican and educator.

Cortes, also a Republican, has been hiding out in her small Mesa apartment ever since her name was filed with the SOS as a possible candidate.

Other than an interview she did with me in August, she's effectively dodged the press, even as signs went up around Mesa with her campaign slogan, "Sí, Se Puede," borrowed cynically from the late César Chávez and the United Farm Workers of America.

In that e-mail interview, Cortes denied that she was a pro-Pearce plant, meant to dilute the vote. But that contradicts what paid petition-gatherers were telling me and other reporters, and when it came time for her nominating petitions to be submitted, Cortes didn't show up at the SOS' office.

Instead, it was Greg Western, a Pearce loyalist and chairman of the East Valley Tea Party. Mobbed by the press, Western denied that he had recruited Cortes, but he admitted that they just happened to be members of the same Mesa ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A review of the petition-gatherers' signatures, and the signatures themselves, revealed numerous folks who are squarely in the Pearce camp, including Franklin B. Ross, the "plaintiff" in Pearce's unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to stop the recall, and Pearce's nephew Logan Pearce, among others.

Two GOP precinct committeemen from nearby LD 19, Dan Grimm and Pat Oldroyd, also circulated petitions for Cortes, though at a recent LD 19 meeting, they and other Pearce supporters spoke on behalf of a resolution condemning the recall and supporting Pearce.

As there was no quorum, the resolution did not go to a vote, but Oldroyd was outed at the meeting by Anson Clarkson, Jerry Lewis' campaign manager, who rose in opposition to the resolution, pointing out that Oldroyd actually had come to his door to solicit signatures for Cortes.

LD 19 chairman Wayne Gardner reacted in horror to the news.

"You did that, Pat?" he asked, interrupting Clarkson.

"I did that, Wayne!" Oldroyd shot back, like a character straight out of Harper Valley PTA.

Oldroyd also was heard to protest that what she'd done was not against the law.

"It's not illegal," Clarkson said after the exchange. "But I would question the ethics of someone [who] stands here and is for Russell Pearce — I'm okay with people being for Russell Pearce — but then attempting to game the political system . . . by trying to recruit a shill candidate."

Earlier in the meeting, Gardner read a statement from Republican LD 18 chair Dan Lovell, announcing that both he and the district Pearce was elected from were remaining neutral.

"If you want to help the Republican Party in LD18," Lovell wrote in an e-mail to Gardner and other GOP district chairs, "stay out of our elections in any official capacity."

Lovell further vowed he would not choose among "three Republicans."

I attended this meeting with Phoenix videographer Dennis Gilman, and some of the video has been posted to my blog. In one video, we confront Grimm about his work for the Cortes candidacy.

But when we tried to do the same with Oldroyd, we were blocked — by none other than the Senate president's brother, Justice of the Peace Lester Pearce.

Have Cortes and Senator Pearce ever met or talked? I have no idea. But it is clear that Cortes is a plant, supported by Pearce's followers and family members. Which makes it difficult to swallow Pearce's claims of ignorance.

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Some are speculating that Pearce will at some point come out and ask Cortes to withdraw from the race, thus making himself seem an honorable man.

This, however, would be an empty gesture, as Cortes' name will remain on the ballot, and presumably her "Sí, Se Puede" signs will remain in place.

How can so many people who hold themselves up as righteous stoop so low? Well, as a friend of mine put it to me recently, they apparently believe in something called the "holy lie." If in the telling of such a lie, victory is secured for a cause deemed "right," then that lie is actually a wholesome, heavenly thing.

And if you buy this and reside in LD 18, maybe you'll vote to keep Pearce as your state senator. On the other hand, your conscience might have a salubrious effect, and you may decide that the "holy lie" still is a lie after all.

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