Feathered Bastard

Russell Pearce's "Patriots" Prevaricate Their Carbuncles Off About Sequoia Schools Lawsuit

Pearce's smear of Lewis is one big bag of bull

Do self-described "patriots" have a problem with the truth? They do when they're working for state Senate President Russell Pearce.

This attack ad from the group "Patriots for Pearce," run by Jesse Hernandez, a staffer for Republican Arizona Congressman David Schweikert, picks up on the spin given by pro-Pearce lobbyist and blogger Greg Patterson regarding a lawsuit brought by a former employee of Children First Academy in Tempe against CFA's owner, Sequoia Charter School, Inc.

It's important to note that Lewis, who was the principal of CFA (a former Thomas J. Pappas School for homeless children) and is still an assistant superintendent for Sequoia, is not a defendant in the wrongful termination lawsuit brought by a former fundraiser and assistant principal for the school, Diane Fernichio.

Fernichio, an at-will employee, was terminated July 23, 2010. According to Sequoia's Superintendent Ron Neil, it was he who made the decision to eliminate Fernichio's position for budget reasons, not Lewis. 

In any case, Fernichio alleges that one of the reasons she was fired is that she objected to "the gift by Jerry Lewis of certain donated items to a recently employed teacher/friend of Mr. Lewis which was to be used at a garage sale for her personal use."

Though the complaint does not go into detail about this incident, the unnamed teacher mentioned is kindergarten instructor Heather Glass. Two summers ago, Glass was planning a yard sale to help finance her future adoption of a child from Ethiopia.

Glass explained to me that there were two boxes of used clothing and an old entertainment center that had been donated to CFA, which were on their way to a thrift store. Apparently, the school sometimes receives donations it can't use, and these usually end up being donated to another charity.

Lewis allowed Glass to take the items for the yard sale, but she and her husband didn't end up selling the stuff.

"We had too many things donated to us," she said. "We looked through the boxes and they were things we didn't think we could sell, so we ended up taking these boxes and a few other things that were donated to us to Deseret Industries."

FYI: Deseret Industries is a non-profit, Goodwill-type chain of thrift stores sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

The entertainment center, a piece of furniture used to hold a TV set, wasn't sold at the yard sale either. So Glass and her spouse returned it to the school, and it was eventually taken off the school's hands by a family of one of the kids there.

Glass concedes that $1,000 was made from the yard sale. But the money raised came from various items donated by members of her family and her community. She said she and her husband, and another couple looking to adopt, ran the yard sale and shared in the proceeds.

Superintendent Neil told me that one of the problems the school has in regards to donations is that much of what they get in donated goods is unusable for its purposes.

"What people don't understand is when they spread this kind of poison, they think they're maybe hurting Jerry," he explained. "But they're really hurting the children. Because even though we do get a lot of stuff that's not so good, we do get a lot of stuff for those kids that's very useful and we're very grateful for them."

Neil is worried that because of this teapot tempest, whipped up by irresponsible bloggers and political operatives, people might be less likely to give items to Children First.

"I would say that before we yell fire in a theater, people have some due diligence to do," he offered.

But people like Patterson and Hernandez are not interested in due diligence. They know that their best shot is to put the prevarication out there. Debunking the bunk takes a second. Meanwhile, the smear gets repeated over and over again, morphing each time, like some sinister version of the kids game "telephone."

For the record, I did attempt to talk to Fernichio, who is now director of development at Concordia Charter School. She referred me to her lawyer Leo Condos. 

Condos said he was unaware of the entertainment center, but admitted that Glass was the teacher in question, and that the incident did involve used clothing. He said Lewis should have had board approval before allowing Glass to take the clothing. 

"Private individuals are not allowed to benefit from a non-profit," he stated. "You could lose your non-profit exemption [by doing so]."

But if Glass gave the stuff to Deseret, what's the big deal?

"She can give it to anybody she wants," he responded. "But it is improper for a not-for-profit to give non-profit stuff to private individuals unless it's a donation to them."

I get the point, but these 'taters still seem pretty tiny. As for whether not this was the reason Fernichio was fired is another question.

Sequoia's counsel Debora Verdier argues in her reply that Fernichio did not have a "fully executed, valid contract," as it was not signed by Superintendent Neil. And indeed, the contract supplied to the court by Condos is blank where Neil's signature should be. 

Below this, it states that, "After signature by the Superintendent, the Employee will receive an official copy back."

Verdier further argues that even if the contract had been valid, it contains a provision stating that, "School or Employee may terminate this agreement and the employment of Employee at any time without cause upon fourteen calendar days notice."

To which, Condos retorts that Fernichio did not get her two weeks notice. However, he admits that though her termination was immediate, she continued to be paid for three weeks, though she was no longer working for the school.

Interestingly, the court has recently awarded some yet-to-be determined legal fees to Sequoia's lawyers because they were having a tough time getting responses from Condos. Condos claims this was due to staffing issues.

Needless to say, in the history of lawsuits, this ain't no Paper Chase-type stuff. The big picture: There's no evidence of Lewis "stealing" from anyone, and to suggest otherwise is an outright falsehood.

"I think the lawsuit is ridiculous," Glass said. "I've worked for Jerry for two years, and he is such a good principal and such a good person. If this is what they're finding out about him, it must mean they're worried."

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