AG complaint brings scrutiny to Lake Havasu Unified School district
A formal complaint with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office left a Lake Havasu Unified School District Governing Board member with difficult questions to answer last week.
The complaint, filed Oct. 3 by school board vice-president Nichole Cohen, alleges that fellow school board member Kathy Cox and other district employees gathered signatures for 2018 school board candidate Dan Pirtle prior to the primary election this August.
According to School Board President James Masden, Cox and other educators were in violation of state law in doing so.
“Mrs. Cox and several district employees gathered signatures in direct violation of Arizona Revised Statute 15-511,” Masden said on Monday. “Without the signatures collected in violation of the law, Dr. Pirtle would not be on the ballot.”
The law prohibits school district employees to use the authority of their respective position to influence the vote or political activities of a subordinate employee, and also prohibits any person acting on behalf of a school district to use school resources toward the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election. According to Masden, Cox and other district employees gathered nearly 100 signatures toward Pirtle’s campaign, directly resulting in Pirtle’s qualifying to face Cohen in the general election this November.
“(Cox) spoke with me in August after this had transpired and admitted to violating that statute and district policy based on the statute more than once,” Masden said. “She had knowledge of the statute and policy from her time as an administrator. Her admission was that she knowingly violated the statute and policy on more than one occasion. This also violated her oath of office where she swore to uphold Arizona law. As a board member she needs to lead by example.”
According to Masden, the fine for violating ARS 15-511 is a civil fine of up to $5,000 per signature gathered, but no signature can be removed from a petition due to a violation of the law. Further, the school board itself has no disciplinary mechanism to bring against Cox in this matter.
When Cox first approached Masden and Superintendent Diana Asseier, it was shortly after Asseier sent school board members an email reiterating the state law.
“I called her and told her what I had done,” Cox said Monday. “John Masden approached me after a board meeting and I told him that I had collected five-to-seven signatures in the manner described.”
According to Cox, those five-to-seven signatures toward Pirtle’s campaign were gained in the wrong way. She attempted to be cautious, she said, not to gather petition signatures on school grounds.
“It was 120 degrees outside,” Cox said. “I told someone who wanted to sign my petition that I would come to the school. We could cross the street to get it done off of school grounds. By the time I walked around the building to find a way in I was very hot, which seems to bring on my (atrial fibrillation). I was worried I would not be able to walk back outside and cross the street. Someone else came up to me, saw the petition, took the clipboard out of my hand and signed it.”
It was something that should not have happened, according to Cox. But it wouldn’t be the last time. On other occasions, at two separate schools, Pirtle’s supporters were permitted to take Cox’s clipboard from her and sign their names to the petition.
“I should have said something, but I didn’t,” Cox said. “I was wrong in all of these instances, not to have gotten off school grounds. I have never denied that I did it or that I was wrong … Dr. Pirtle, who I was collecting signatures for, had nothing to do with any of this.”
According to Cox, the signatures on Pirtle’s petition were not given out of compliance to herself as a school board member, or to other school district staff.
“(Masden) thinks at least 100 signatures are out of compliance. He assumes the signatures were gathered at schools. All of the schools hold ‘happy hours’ on Friday and it’s easy to get signatures that way. Nichole and John do not believe we could have gathered 300 signatures in a two or three week period. The fact is that when the staff found out Pirtle was running, I was overwhelmed with phone calls from staff members asking for petitions to circulate. We only needed 189 signatures and we gathered 300, so we legally have enough signatures anyway.”
Cohen alleges, however, that it wasn’t merely Cox who was complicit in the violation of state statute, but other district staff in positions of authority also used the influence of their respective positions to solicit signatures on school property.
“I am hoping for guidance in fixing the statutes so our district, and all districts, will stop using our schools for political purposes and short term gains … ensuring staff compliance, enforcement and reasonable consequences for those who willfully break the law.”