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Judge: Cortes was recruited by Pearce allies, but she stays on ballot

Senate President Russell Pearce, Olivia Cortes (File photos)

A judge ruled today that the Mesa woman accused of being a “diversionary” candidate in the recall election targeting Senate President Russell Pearce was clearly recruited by Pearce’s supporters but that he cannot kick her off the ballot.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Edward Burke said Olivia Cortes was “recruited” by a Tea Party activist at the behest of Pearce’s allies, but said it’s not the court’s job to “examine and be the final arbiter of the motives political candidates may have.”

Critics had claimed that Cortes was part of a “cynical ploy” to divert Hispanic votes from Pearce’s main challenger, charter school executive Jerry Lewis.

In his ruling, Burke denied a temporary restraining order seeking to boot Cortes off the ballot, though he said it is “clear that those who have assisted Cortes have done so to divert votes from Lewis for Pearce’s benefit.”

“A concomitant right of our citizens is to run for elective office without having their motives examined by the court absent a clear case of fraud,” Burke said.

There could be less noble reasons for running for office, such as “boredom, or no reason at all,” but divining candidates’ motivations and acting on them is the role of voters, the judge said.

“Plaintiff’s remedy is through the ballot box and not the courts,” he said.

Burke also said by the time the lawsuit against Cortes was filed, early ballots had already been mailed and the court could not risk disenfranchising voters by ruling otherwise.

In her complaint to Maricopa County Superior Court, voter Mary Lou Boettcher alleged that Cortes is a Pearce supporter and called her a “fraudulent and diversionary candidate.”

Boettcher said she suspects Pearce’s supporters put Cortes up to mislead Hispanic voters into believing Cortes “would be a viable alternative, when in fact she is a sham.”

Pearce’s supporters, she said, “hope to confuse Spanish Speaking qualified electors in thinking that Olivia Cortes is their candidate of choice, thus depriving such voters from the real alternative to recalled Senator Pearce, Jerry Lewis.”

Last week, a trial appeared to have bolstered the case against Cortes, who testified in court she doesn’t have full control over her campaign and doesn’t know who paid circulators to gather many of the signatures she needed to qualify for the ballot.

Also, Cortes testified she has no idea who paid for dozens of campaign signs that are posted across her district. She has also put in $500 into her campaign account, and she said she hasn’t used the money yet.

The trial also shed some light on Cortes’ relationship with the chairman of the East Valley Tea Party, Greg Western.

Both Cortes’ and Western’s testimony showed how much Cortes relies on him to run her campaign and make critical political decisions.

Western also filed her nominating petitions with state elections officials.

Other Republicans who are known Pearce supporters, including an East Valley resident who unsuccessfully challenged the recall petition, also admitted in court that they gathered signatures for Cortes.

Those Pearce supporters also included Maricopa County Republican Party officers Pat Oldroyd and Daniel Grimm.

During the trial, Suzanne Dreher, who was paid to collect signatures for Cortes, said she was instructed by her employer to tell Pearce’s supporters that signing Cortes’ nominating petition would help Pearce keep his seat.

When pressed how, Dreher said by “dividing the vote.”

But Cortes and her lawyer vigorously defended her right to throw her hat in the ring. Her lawyer, Anthony Tsontakis, said the lawsuit was politically motivated and it sought to achieve nothing but to defame Cortes.

The lawyer also made a compelling reason against removing Cortes from the ballot. The government, he said, had no business inquiring into the motivations of people who gather signatures for a candidate.

He added that removing a candidate from the ballot would chill political speech.

Tsontakis said the court appropriately ruled the case on First Amendment grounds.

“Those things may or may not be true. But it’s not the court’s business,” Tsontakis said of allegations that Cortes was recruited to siphon off votes from Lewis, Pearce’s main contender.

“The free press is very well equipped to inquire into people’s political motives and to let the public know about people’s political associations. It’s straightforwardly none of the court’s business, none of the government’s business, (to inquire) what people’s political associations and motives are,” he said.

If appealed, Tsontakis said he believes the state’s high court would find the trial court’s reasons and his arguments to be persuasive.

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