Feathered Bastard

Russell Pearce's Right-Wing Echo Chamber, and Its Latest Smear of Jerry Lewis

Gilman slams Patterson in his latest. Nice laugh track, Dennis.

In the wake of the Olivia Cortes flap in the Legislative District 18 recall race, the right-wing echo chamber has been trying its darnedest to gin up scandals involving Republican Jerry Lewis, state Senate President Russell Pearce's challenger.

First there was blogger-lobbyist Greg Patterson's assertion that Lewis had misappropriated funds from homeless kids in his role as an assistant superintendent of Sequoia Charter Schools, an allegation actually involving a couple of boxes of used clothing and an old entertainment center.

I laid these absurd charges to rest in a previous blog post, but there's another pseudo-scandal being peddled by the pro-Pearce crowd. This time by columnist Becky Fenger of the Cave Creek-based Sonoran News, which you may recall as the publication guilty of smearing Mesa resident Benita Lantigua, a signer of the petition that Citizens for a Better Arizona used to force the recall in LD 18.

Sonoran News suggested that Lantigua, a naturalized American citizen, had committed election fraud and bigamy, and was "likely" an illegal alien. All untrue, yet Sonoran News has so far refused to apologize to Lantigua or retract or correct the story.

Fenger wasn't involved in that particular untruth-telling. Rather, the slime oozed from SN's publisher and editor Don Sorchych and his Looney Tunes "reporter" Linda Bentley, a die-hard "birther" who continues to insist in print that President Barack Obama's birth certificate is a forgery, contrary to reality as experienced by non-tinfoil hat wearers. 

But as with wrong-way Bentley's scribblings, Fenger's inaccuracies in her recent "Fenger Pointing" column have been bandied about the ultra-conservative blogosphere as if written by the, um, finger of god.

Bankruptcy attorney Rachel Alexander's inaptly-named Intellectual Conservative Arizona blog has republished the Fenger article, and Fenger's allegations were repeated almost verbatim by Tea Partier Kelly Townsend Friday night at a rally for Pearce in Mesa that drew about 300 souls.

In addition to regurgitating the Patterson tripe, Fenger comes up with some of her own hooey regarding a relationship between Glendale's Joy Christian School and Sequoia Choice Arizona, a relationship that was the subject of an investigation by the Arizona Attorney General's Office.

Seems Joy Christian was charging parents as a private institution, while allowing Sequoia, which is a public charter school and thus taxpayer-funded, to do the heavy-lifting academically. You can read the AG's complaint for yourself, here

Sequoia was not the target of the AG's action, Joy Christian was. The AG's office alleged Joy Christian violated the Consumer Fraud Act. In an agreement with the AG, Joy Christian was fined $30,000, and made to pay tuition assistance in the amount of $30K per year to students attending Joy Christian.

According to the complaint, Sequoia was not fined, was not party to the agreement with the AG's office, and was not made to "pay back" anything to anyone. Nor was Sequoia alleged to have broken the law.

"As a public charter school, Sequoia Choice receives state funding," the complaint reads at one point. "It cannot and did not charge any tuition for the classes it taught at the Joy Campus."

The Arizona Republic wrote about the settlement in July, stating that, 

"Sequoia Choice Arizona charter school did not face a penalty for its role in the arrangement because while it provided teachers and courses to Joy Christian, it did not accept any money beyond its state funding, the settlement said."

Lewis is currently an assistant superintendent of Sequoia Charter Schools, of which Sequoia Choice is a part. 

So far, so good. But here's how Fenger begins her mistaken recounting of events:

"Lewis was superintendent of Sequoia Schools, a publicly-funded charter school chain. In 2005 he approached the owners of Joy Christian School, a privately-funded Christian school, with an offer to contract Sequoia's distance learning system to provide learning tools that Joy lacked to some of Joy's students. Joy accepted the offer and began to have Joy students log into Sequoia's program from Joy School's facility."

According to Sequoia's superintendent Ron Neil, Lewis has never been a superintendent, and did not begin working for Sequoia until November of 2007.

Where did Fenger get her "facts"? There's nothing in the court record or in any of the Republic articles with this information.

"An audit was conducted. It was discovered that Sequoia received $1.9 million from the additional students. The audit also revealed that Sequoia had shown an increase of slightly over 400 new students on a daily basis by counting the Joy students

"Lewis (r) was confronted with the facts from the audit and advised to step down as superintendent of Sequoia. Lewis stepped down, and no charges were pressed. Since he had used state funds, Sequoia was forced to reimburse the funds."

Lewis is never mentioned in the AG's complaint. Neil says Lewis never had to step down from anything. And Sequoia did not have to reimburse any monies.

Where did Fenger get the $1.9 million figure? The Republic does mention this amount in the following context from a 2009 story:

"State records obtained by The Arizona Republic show that Sequoia Choice Arizona Distance Learning, a charter-school firm, collected at least $1.9 million in state funds from 2005 through 2008 to teach courses to students of Joy Christian School."

But that article doesn't mention this money being reimbursed, and it doesn't make sense that it would have to be, as Sequoia wasn't charging the parents of the kids, Joy Christian was. 

The closest the AG's complaint gets to criticizing Sequoia is the following passage:

"The Attorney General alleges that Joy Christian misrepresented its relationship with Sequoia Choice by downplaying the extent of coursework being taught by Sequoia Choice. Neither Joy Christian nor Sequoia Choice ever informed parents that students enrolled in Sequoia Choice could continue to receive an education at the Joy Campus, with the same teachers, same classrooms, and same curriculum, without paying any tuition to Joy Christian."

Still, there's no allegation that Sequoia took any of the tuition money paid to Joy Christian, and the AG didn't go after Sequoia, it went after Joy. 

Neil e-mailed me the following statement concerning the Sequoia-Joy matter:

"Sequoia's relationship with Joy started by providing supplemental courses to their new high school, which offered only a few courses. Eventually Sequoia Choice leased space on Joy's property, hired teachers and provided courses to many of the students. Sequoia basically taught many of the core courses; in other words, some of the students were part-time students in Sequoia Choice. 

"Joy provided a significant number of courses to their students. There were many students from Joy who did not attend any of Sequoia's courses. Sequoia Choice was open to ANY student, Joy or otherwise.

"The AG's office and [the Arizona Department of Education] auditor's office investigated as a result of a parent complaint from Joy. Sequoia Choice was never the object of the investigation. whereas Joy was fined for misleading their parents. Sequoia Choice has never been asked to refund any money. 

"The entire question was why did Joy charge so much when many of their students took some classes from Sequoia Choice. As you can appreciate, Sequoia has nothing to do with the policies of a private school."

I can't say I enjoy spending so much time debunking the bunk from the Pearce camp. But the Sonoran News and other such dubious outlets continue to churn out the falsehoods and half-truths full blast. And if these falsehoods are not countered, they take on the aura of vague credibility to the uninformed.

So, here lieth another scurrilous allegation crushed. Next?

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