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Russell Pearce's Allies at Cave Creek's Sonoran News Slime an Innocent Woman in an Attempt to Besmirch the Effort Seeking His Recall

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It's always been my motto that the targets of my verbal swipes should be sharks, not minnows.

But in our era, the Internet is the great leveler, and what's passed off as factual can be as imaginary as leprechauns. A blog on the Huffington Post, or almost anywhere else, is taken with the same credibility as an article in the New York Times.

I'm no Luddite. But if this thing called journalism is to survive, then what we read for news cannot be the equivalent of the alternate realities on display in films like The Matrix or Inception.


Stephen Lemons

So I'm forced to point my rhetorical rifle at minnow Linda Bentley, who "reports" for the picayune Cave Creek publication Sonoran News.

Bentley has a history of being a rabid nativist, a committed birther (even after President Obama released his long-form birth certificate), and a stalwart defender of state Senate President Russell Pearce.

Paying any attention to what Bentley has to say in the right-wing rag she scribbles for would normally be giving her far too much importance.

But her shabbily researched June 15 article, "Pearce Recall Petitions Indicate Massive Voter Registration Fraud," has been bandied about as gospel in the wingnut sections of the blogosphere — despite its glaring inaccuracies.

Such rightist blogs as Seeing Red AZ and Sonoran Alliance have linked to it, and websites for both the Maricopa County GOP and the Arizona Republican Party have reprinted it in its entirety.

Pearce himself, whose recall election is now inevitable because of the efforts of Citizens for a Better Arizona, has disseminated Bentley's misreporting by proxy.

See, the Senate president is "honorary national co-chairman" for the local anti-immigrant organization Ban Amnesty Now.

BAN is run by former Arizona GOP executive director Sean McCaffrey, who has discovered that he can maintain his 501(c)4 nonprofit by sending out near-lunatic e-mail blasts to naive Mexican-haters, asking them to plug in their credit card numbers and give generously to keep illegal immigrants from overrunning America.

McCaffrey is like a lot of moderate Republicans here who've found it advantageous to hate on Hispanic immigrants. And given that our own U.S. Senator John McCain recently blamed illegal aliens (wrongly) for Arizona's current rash of wildfires, BAN is likely rolling in the dough.

In the Valley of the Sun, hate sells. McCaffrey reminds me of a guy I spotted once at a nativist rally who was selling T-shirts with anti-immigrant slogans. I'd actually met the guy before, and he sheepishly admitted that he was selling the bigoted swag because he needed the cash.

But I digress. The point is that McCaffrey regurgitated Bentley's bogus allegation of "massive voter registration fraud" in one of his e-mail blasts to the faithful.

He even went so far as to repeat Bentley's sliming of a woman whom Bentley used as her prime example of "fraud."

The woman's name is Benita Lantigua, a Mesa resident who has been divorced and remarried a couple of times.

Bentley wrote that Lantigua may have committed fraud because there were three "active" listings for her under different names at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office.

Of course, there would have been fraud only if Lantigua had voted under different names or signed the petition under different names.

But county elections director Karen Osborne says Lantigua did neither of these things, that she did nothing wrong.

"I did have staff research it," Osborne told me of the Bentley allegation. "[Lantigua] was on the files [in three places], but she had never voted in the inappropriate name and had not signed the petition dually."

Basically, when Lantigua changed her name, she changed her registration to reflect it. The county sends out three pieces of mail to verify voter listings. If the mail is not returned, the registration remains active.

I asked Osborne about the allegation of "massive voter registration fraud." She called that characterization "inaccurate," based on what she's seen of the petitions.

The elections director did say there were duplicate signatures, meaning some people signed the petition more than once under the same name. This is not fraud. In this case, one signature is counted, and the rest are deemed invalid.

Osborne told me she had not talked to Bentley or anyone from her paper about this specific allegation. Osborne checked the registration after the article was published.

Nor did Bentley quote any county officials in her piece. And, apparently, she did not bother to phone the woman she slimed, even though Lantigua's number is listed.

I know this because I called Lantigua. It was the first she'd heard of the matter. She said she had not been contacted by Bentley, and she had never seen the article in question.

She seemed genuinely befuddled by Bentley's scurrilous allegations.

"I only signed once," she said. "I did not sign [the petition] twice."

She freely acknowledged that she had changed her name because of divorce and remarriage in the past.

Maybe Bentley thinks divorce, remarriage, and changing your name are illegal in Arizona. If so, she should seriously consider joining the Flat Earth Society.

Did Bentley choose Lantigua to pick on because of her Hispanic surname? I don't know, but Bentley does use coded language in her piece, suggesting that some of those who signed were illegal immigrants.

She writes: "There were plenty of other examples of people signing the petition with Latin names who could barely print, let alone sign, claiming a birthplace of Mexico, Guatemala, or 'not provided.'

"Many stated their occupations as 'laborer' or, in some instances, as 'laborers.'"

To be fair, Bentley does mention one — count him, one — signer of the petition with an Anglo last name. This guy's sin? According to Bentley, he misspelled his last name.

To this point, Bentley offered the following clueless passage:

"One man signed and printed his last name 'Peterson' quite legibly. Due to Peterson being somewhat of a common name, it made more sense to look him up by address.

"However, the address revealed the registration of a man whose last name was spelled 'Pederson.'"

Wow, that's some real Sherlock Holmes-style sleuthing there, Linda. If they start prosecuting people for spelling errors, about 99 percent of the population will wind up behind bars. All but preteen winners of spelling bees.

The claim's so lame that I was almost embarrassed to ask Osborne about this one. But due diligence gave me no choice, so I e-mailed Osborne with the query.

"[I] do not have enough info to answer the question," she replied. "Do not have a Peterson/Pederson combination that I could locate. I looked at the article and found no first name. At any rate, we would match the signature and the printing style on his current and past registrations before making the determination."

Bentley smeared this fella, too. But curiously, she did not list his address, as she did with Lantigua.

I don't know enough about libel law to know whether Bentley and those who reprinted her trash are on the hook legally for it.

But Lantigua may not be the only one considering legal action. Sean McCaffrey's made some outrageous stand-alone accusations in BAN e-mail screeds about the recall's organizers. And these have prompted a response from Citizens for a Better Arizona.

Chad Snow, attorney and CBA chairman, fired off a letter last week to Pearce, McCaffrey, and Lisa Hauser, the legal attack schnauzer working on behalf of the pro-Pearce forces.

Snow wrote: "It is one thing to call us 'open borders extremists', 'socialists,' 'anarchists,' the 'open borders cartel,' 'mafia members,' 'thugs' and the like — petty name-calling, while unbecoming of a Senate president, is what we have come to expect from you.

"But when you start disseminating information accusing us of 'supporting massive voter fraud' and 'illegal' activities, you have crossed a line into defamation, which is recognized as a tort in the State of Arizona."

Because we enjoy freedom of speech in this country, as enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, there's a lot of leeway allowed when it comes to political discourse. And this is as it should be.

But Bentley has gone way too far. She even suggested in her article that Lantigua may have committed bigamy.

As this column went to press, I learned that this situation is even uglier than I first thought.

Based on Bentley's sorry reporting, Bentley's boss, Don Sorchych, editor and publisher of Sonoran News, wrote a June 22 editorial saying Lantigua was "likely an illegal."

He wrote: "Bentley found a Mexican woman who has voting rights under three different last names at the same home address. She is likely an illegal also, in which case she has no right to vote. If she is legal, she has a right to vote once, not three times."

Keep in mind that Osborne stated that Lantigua did nothing wrong. She did not double-vote, nor did she double-sign.

I called Lantigua back with Sorchych's claims. She was aghast.

"I've lived in Arizona for like the last 22, 23 years," she told me. "I went through the legal process. I became a permanent resident alien. I waited . . . [and] I became an American citizen."

Lantigua said she has a U.S. passport and works in a local bank. She confirmed that she is considering legal action against Sorchych's paper.

To which, I wish her Godspeed. Because there should be consequences for penning the bunk Bentley and Sorchych do on a regular basis.

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