The lawyers who fought to get alleged sham candidate Olivia Cortes disqualified in the Mesa recall election planned to put Senate President Russell Pearce’s brother on the stand in a now-cancelled trial.
Lawyers Tom Ryan and Michael Wright said Lester Pearce, the North Mesa Justice of the Peace, was among those who were subpoenaed to testify about whether they played a role in helping Cortes qualify for the ballot and campaign for her.
The hearing was canceled because Cortes struck an 11th-hour deal Thursday to voluntarily withdraw from the recall election in exchange for having the lawsuit against her dropped.
Cortes was under dogged scrutiny by critics who charged for weeks that she was helped onto the ballot by Pearce supporters, his family members and other high-ranking Republican officers as part of a plan to siphon votes away from the top challenger in the race, charter school executive Jerry Lewis.
The lawyers said they had strong evidence to show that Lester Pearce, who is also a former senator, took his niece to gather signatures for Cortes and that he was in a campaign strategy meeting attended by Greg Western, the Tea Party activist who was Cortes’ de facto campaign manager and advisor. Russell Pearce was also in that alleged meeting, the lawyers claimed.
“He facilitated getting signatures for Cortes,” Wright told the Arizona Capitol Times.
Wright said he also subpoenaed two of Russell Pearce’s nieces, Western, political consultant Constantin Querard and Diane Burns, who operates a signature-gathering firm that was supposedly paid to collect signatures for Cortes.
Russell Pearce’s two nieces, Megan Sirrine and Shilo Sessions, had collected signatures for Cortes.
Querard, a longtime political strategist, is running an independent expenditure committee to help Pearce keep his seat. He has vigorously denied having anything to do with Cortes.
Wright said the legal team was prepared to call other witnesses to refute the testimony of Lester Pearce, as well.
They were also prepared to show that Cortes knew what her alleged role was in the campaign — to peel off votes from Lewis, who is Pearce’s lone contender in the Nov. 8 recall election now that Cortes has dropped out, Wright said.
Wright said they would have shown in court that Western attended a “campaign strategy” meeting with the Pearce brothers and another person.
Cortes had told the court she was a legitimate candidate who wanted to offer her views on the illegal immigration issue. She said she was inspired to run after hearing Western speak about the U.S. Constitution at their church.
“What we told the court was the body of evidence that from all of those sources would show that the Pearce campaign was closely associated with the Cortes campaign,” Wright said.
In a press briefing announcing the lawsuit’s dismissal Thursday, Ryan said Cortes withdrew from the race because she and “Pearce forces understood that tomorrow was going to be a disaster for them.”
After Thursday night’s debate in Mesa, Russell Pearce said the charge that there’s a link between his campaign and Cortes’ short-lived candidacy is “simply not true.”
“(It’s) simply another fabrication. This whole lawsuit was a sham,” Russell Pearce said. “Jerry Lewis’ camp went to her to try to talk her out of running. That was shameful, I thought, and now they’ve run her out because they’ve scared her, intimidated her, (and) filed a lawsuit. Where’s Gloria Allred when you need her?”
Lester Pearce, who watched the debate, also strongly denied having helped Cortes, in any way, to get on the ballot — except to say she has a right to run.
Lester Pearce admitted that he was with his niece, Sessions, while she gathered signatures for Cortes one Friday.
But he described his presence in Sessions’ car as passive, rejecting any insinuation that he was involved in helping Cortes get on the ballot isn’t truth.
“I needed a ride and I rode with her and she stopped a couple of times,” Lester Pearce said. “(It was) probably indiscretion on my part to have gotten in the car with her and then her saying, ‘Oh, I need to stop here’.”
But he vigorously defended his nieces’ right to collect signatures for any candidate. His family has been collecting signatures to aid Republicans for years, he said.
When categorically asked if he made any efforts to get Cortes on the ballot, Lester Pearce replied: “Did I, personally? No.”
“I don’t circulate petitions. I didn’t collect a single signature. I can’t do that. It’s a judicial ethics issue,” he said.
Judges and justices of the peace are heavily restricted when it comes to politics, even when it comes to their own elections.
For instance, the Arizona Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judges from publicly endorsing or opposing candidates for any public office, taking part in any campaign other than his own, and making speeches on behalf of a political organization or candidate.
The code says the rules against participating in political activities are to prevent the erosion of public confidence in the independence and impartiality of judges and “to prevent them from abusing the prestige of the judicial office to advance the interests of others.”
The code also directly addresses judges whose family members are running for office.
There is no family exception to the prohibition against endorsing a candidate for any public office.
“A judge or judicial candidate must not become involved in, or publicly associated with, a family member’s political activity or campaign for public office,” the code reads. “To avoid public misunderstanding, judges and judicial candidates should take and should urge members of their families to take reasonable steps to avoid any implication that the judge or judicial candidate endorses any family member’s candidacy or other political activity.”
Asked whether he would file a complaint with the judicial conduct committee, Ryan said he would likely do so in the near future.
“We’ll provide the information to the Commission on Judicial Conduct and he can defend it to them,” Ryan said. “Like Ricky said to Lucy, ‘he’s got some ’splaining to do.’”
- Arizona Capitol Times writers Jim Small and Gary Grado contributed to this report