Sen. Russell Pearce, author of Arizona’s new strict immigration law, suggested in an e-mail that money from First Things First is funding services for illegal aliens and abortion.
But the campaign to save the agency known formally as Early Childhood Development and Health Board dismissed the notion as “plain fiction.”
The agency’s spokeswoman also called it “inaccurate,” as did at least one pregnancy center that received grant money from the agency.
In the e-mail, Pearce urged the public to support a proposal to disband First Things First, arguing that the Legislature could use its money to directly fund children’s programs, rather than have it be coursed through what he believes is a bloated bureaucracy.
Pearce went on to say in the email’s subject heading that he “understands” money is being used for “funding of abortion” and “spent on illegal aliens.”
Pearce told the Arizona Capitol Times he was not making an outright accusation, just raising a “concern.”
Asked if he knew for sure that the agency’s grant money was going to abortion-related services, Pearce said “no.”
“But I’m saying that the inference can be drawn with the undercover work that we did. It is pretty clear in my opinion that that’s the case,” he said. “But I come short of accusing, but I have major concerns and it appears that’s the case.”
David Leibowitz, who speaks for Save First Things First-No on 302, described Pearce’s allegation as “plain fiction.”
“I have a lot of respect for Senator Pearce. I mean he speaks his mind and I generally think that he’s one of those guys who speak the truth.” Leibowitz said. “I don’t think this is true.”
A cursory look at the grants awarded by First Things First might help explain the source of Pearce’s “concern.”
The agency’s South Pima regional council awarded $44,000 to Teen Outreach Pregnancy Services, which, as the name suggests, offers a host of pregnancy-related programs, such as testing, and childbirth and parenting education.
On its website, the group also says it offers “counseling on all options” to teens facing an unplanned pregnancy, including “adoption, parenting, and abortion.”
“If they are encouraging you and giving you referrals to where you can go kill a baby, that’s abortion, and it will not be funded with taxpayer dollars according to Arizona (law), and this group appears to be doing that,” Pearce told the Arizona Times.
State law prohibits public monies from being used for an abortion unless the procedure is necessary to save a woman’s life.
But Marie Fordney, operations director of the pregnancy outreach center, said the suggestion that First Things First is funding abortion services is “ridiculous.”
That’s contrary to the early childhood board’s mission, which is to fund healthy development programs for children, Fordney said.
“It doesn’t make sense. They would be shooting themselves in the foot if they were to fund ending the life or not having children,” she said.
In fact, no money from First Things First money funds the center’s counseling services, she said.
Instead, the grant money funds the group’s education and support programs for pregnant teenagers. That includes, for example, assigning a case manager and a nurse educator, who teaches about breastfeeding and nutrition, Fordney said.
As for their counseling services, they don’t provide direct referrals for abortion, Fordney said. They give “medically accurate” information about abortion, she added.
Pearce also told the Capitol Times he received information that two groups that also got grant money from First Things First “do not ask about citizenship and they don’t care about citizenship” in offering services.
Arizona law bars illegal immigrants from getting state-funded public benefits.
Pearce identified the groups as the Pinal-Gila Community Child Services, which received $50,000 from the Gila regional council for home visitations designed to promote effective parenting skills and child abuse prevention, and Excel Group, which got $560,000 from Yuma regional council also for emergency home visitations.
Susan Fender, the community development director for Pinal-Gila Community Child Services, said her group’s home-visitation grant application was to provide for Early Head Start-like services, which they already had in some communities. And Early Head Start, which is federally funded, doesn’t require identification of legal status, she said.
“It’s not something that we’ve ever asked, and we didn’t change that protocol when we started doing First Things First services,” she said.
Asked if it’s possible her group could be serving illegal immigrants, Fender said, “I have no idea.”
An Excel Group representative could not be reached for comment.
First Things First spokesperson Liz Barker Alvarez said Pearce’s email is inaccurate.
“FTF is in full compliance with all state requirements regarding the provision of services to individuals who are lawfully present in the U.S.,” she said in an e-mail response. “To the best of our knowledge, grantees administering our programs also are in compliance.”