Jerry Lewis is fighting back against accusations he “stole” donated items from homeless children, saying Senate President Russell Pearce is morally unmoored for making the allegations.
In a press briefing Monday, Lewis said the attacks made against him by the Pearce campaign are “vicious, malicious and spurious.”
His campaign spokesman, John Giles, said Pearce has become desperate.
“The Pearce campaign has lost its moral compass,” Giles said.
The issue stemmed from a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by a teacher at a school where Lewis served as principal.
The teacher, Diane Fernichio, claimed she was fired because she repeatedly questioned Lewis’ spending practices and “questionable donation usage.”
Lewis had given away donated items — clothes and a TV console — to another school employee who was raising money for an adoption.
Recently, Pearce’s campaign produced a web video that called Lewis a thief. His campaign also repeated the accusation in a press release.
The video said Lewis fired a school employee because she “caught him stealing donated items to homeless kids.”
The school serves homeless children and relies heavily on donations for support.
But Monday, Pearce’s campaign appears to be distancing itself from the web video.
Chad Willems, Pearce’s campaign manager, said the video was a “draft advertisement under consideration by the Pearce campaign” that was posted to a YouTube account.
“We would like it to be known that the ad in question was not meant for public consumption. It was neither aired on broadcast or cable television nor was it distributed as a web advertisement by the Pearce campaign,” Willems said.
On Friday night, Willems had defended the allegation against Lewis.
“Jerry Lewis has admitted taking those items,” he told the Arizona Capitol Times.
But Lewis’ campaign said Pearce’s characterization of what happened is a “horrible lie.”
The campaign repeated that the items that were given away were practically of little value, and the teacher who got them ended up not selling them at a yard sale anyway.
In a press conference organized by Lewis’ campaign Monday, Ron Neil, the school superintendent, said he found the accusations against Lewis “repugnant.”
“Unfortunately, this also affects our schools and our children. The next time people think about giving a donation to our two schools that accept homeless kids, they’re going to think twice,” Neil said. “And let me tell you, these homeless kids are very, very complicated and they need all the help they can get.”
He said it’s not unusual for the school to give away items that are not usable to the school or its students since finding a storing place for them is a problem.
He said it was another school employee who gave the donated items to a kindergarten teacher, but Lewis approved it.
Neil also reiterated what he said earlier — that it was he who fired the teacher and he, in fact, overruled an earlier decision by Lewis and another school principal who sought to keep her.
Lewis is not a defendant in the wrongful-termination lawsuit. The school is.
Fernichio, a former teacher with Tempe-based Children First Academy where Lewis served as principal, alleged in an October 2010 lawsuit that the school breached its contract by firing her without a 14-day-notice that’s required under her contract.
She said her termination was the result of her “continuous questioning of conduct of the principal … regarding spending practices and questionable donation usage.”
Heather Glass, the kindergarten teacher who received the school items, said she received so much stuff from others for her fundraiser she never sold the school items at the yard sale.
“I thought that we could sell them but we opened them and they were like sweat pants and things that we didn’t think could sell and because we had so many things from our friends and family we didn’t need a lot of stuff,” she said.
She never made any money from the school items, she said.
“I was very upset and I felt really bad and embarrassed,” she said when she learned about the controversy.