Public Enemy Number One

Robin Scoins is the perfect face for the argument against Arizona Child Protective Services. And she believes that's exactly why she's drawn the ire of state representative Pete Hershberger.

Three years ago, Scoins lost her newborn son to CPS custody. The agency claimed, falsely, that she'd tested positive for crystal meth; it took nine months to sort out what proved to be a sloppy mistake and get her little boy out of foster care.

Today, Scoins devotes her time to parenting her four kids — and to fighting CPS. As the founder, executive director, and sole staffer of the Arizona Family Rights Advocacy Institute, she helps families with their custody battles, inveighs against legislative efforts to increase CPS funding, and pushes for laws that increase parental rights.

She's had some victories. Typically, the Legislature will renew an agency's mandate for 10 years; with Scoins on the attack last year, CPS's parent agency, the Department of Economic Security, was renewed for only two. She was also able to draw attention to social workers who raised complaints about the agency's operations in Kingman (see "Suffer the Children," October 26, 2006).

And Scoins knows how to work the bully pulpit. If nothing else, her story provides great political cover for CPS critics like Senator Karen Johnson, a Mesa Republican. It can be difficult, politically, to criticize an agency that fights child abuse. It's a lot easier when you have an example of a non-abusive mom, like Scoins, caught in its bureaucratic net.

But despite her success at the Capitol, and despite the fancy title, Robin Scoins is no Jack Abramoff. She lives on Social Security and does her advocacy work from the bedroom of her Section 8 apartment — because, as she explains, "I don't even have a kitchen table." She has no funding, not even from the families she advocates for, although sometimes they'll help out by babysitting. She's never wined or dined a legislator in her life.

But is she a lobbyist? That's the question that could cost her up to $1,000 or even a misdemeanor conviction.

Under Arizona law, lobbyists must register every two years and pay a $25 registration fee. They must also file annual reports.

Scoins never did any of that. And last month, Representative Pete Hershberger, a Republican from Tucson, wrote the secretary of state to request that the office investigate whether Scoins is "properly registered for the activities she is undertaking." He then forwarded the letter to the attorney general and Maricopa County attorney.

Hershberger chairs the House's Human Services Committee and is one of the Legislature's most outspoken CPS supporters. While many Republicans harshly criticized the agency's Napolitano-era mandate to prioritize child safety above family preservation, Hershberger applauded it. When Napolitano asked for $34 million for the agency in 2003's landmark "CPS reform" special session, House Republicans countered with $1.7 million. Hershberger crafted the compromise that got CPS $17 million instead.

As Hershberger pointed out in his letter, Scoins has signed in at committee meetings as a representative of her family rights institute. The secretary of state's "lobbyist handbook" suggests that could be enough, in and of itself, to trigger a violation, although an actual penalty would require Scoins to have "knowingly" failed to follow the rules.

Joseph Kanefield, the state election director for Secretary of State Jan Brewer, acknowledges that complaints like Hershberger's are highly unusual. "I can tell you that it's the first one we've gotten this session," he says. It'll be up to his office to determine whether there's "reasonable cause" to suspect that a violation occurred. If there is, he says, the case would go to Goddard.

Kanefield sent a letter to Scoins on March 8 with two questions: Was she paid by the family advocacy institute to lobby the Legislature? And had she spent any money to woo legislators — say, buying them lunch?

Scoins has done neither, as she explained in her reply to Kanefield last week.

"At no time have I ever presented myself as a lobbyist, and in fact stated in public hearings, that I am NOT a lobbyist and I am not paid by anyone to speak in support of or in opposition of any bill," she wrote. "I have not been paid to provide testimony at the request of a legislator as a citizen expert on CPS issues. I am a mother, who volunteers time to help others exercising my right to participate in government processes."

Kanefield says it's too early to say whether Scoins must register just because she represents a group. The law is complicated; Kanefield doesn't want to comment on the merits of the complaint until his office's investigation is done.

But others are crying foul on Hershberger.

Dan Pochoda, legal director of the Arizona chapter of the ACLU, says he's waiting for the secretary of state's decision before he gets involved. But if lobbying laws are used to stop a citizen from speaking in front of a committee, even if that citizen is part of a bigger group, he believes it "would raise significant First Amendment issues."

And Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform and an outspoken critic of CPS, calls Hershberger's complaint "absolutely unheard of."

"Most legislators," Wexler says, "at least pick on someone their own size. I've never heard of anyone going after a grassroots activist like this."

Even if Hershberger is right about the law, it doesn't help that he and Scoins disagree so vehemently on the issues. If nothing else, this looks like an attempt to harass a dissenting voice, and one of a low-income single mom at that.

Nor does it help that, in the private sector, Hershberger is getting paid by a company with strong ties to CPS. Before he was elected to the House, Hershberger was a full-time employee at a Tucson social service agency called Open Inn. Tax records show that Open Inn gets the bulk of its funding — more than $3 million annually — from government contracts. As Hershberger acknowledges, some of those contracts are with CPS's parent agency.

It's not clear just how much he's being paid. The personal disclosure form that Hershberger has on file with the secretary of state shows only that the total is over $1,000. He claims he hasn't billed Open Inn in months and that the company's ties don't factor into how he feels about CPS. (And what he's doing is not a legal conflict of interest, according to Arizona's rather lax laws regarding legislators.)

Hershberger insists that his letter wasn't intended to silence a critic.

"I was just curious," he says. "My understanding is if she's representing someone other than just herself, paid or unpaid, she has to register. That's to protect the public and let them know who's representing who. . . . Now it's up to them. If she didn't do anything wrong, okay, I'm done with it."

Richard Wexler, for one, doesn't buy it. If Hershberger was just "curious," he asks, why not just talk to Scoins and ask about her funding?

"That's what he would do if he was curious," Wexler says. "But if he wanted to bully her, he'd send a letter to the secretary of state — and then he'd forward it to the county attorney."

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske