State election officials launched a probe Friday to find out who is paying for those campaign signs urging people to support Olivia Cortes in the Nov. 8 special recall election against Senate President Russell Pearce.
Secretary of State Ken Bennett said the inquiry started after Cortes, testifying under oath in court on Thursday, said that neither she nor her campaign had paid for or erected the handful of signs that have sprung up around the east Mesa legislative district.
"I seen them," she said. "But I don't know who put them."
Sitting in court was state Elections Director Amy Chan. She, in turn, reported it to her boss, Secretary of State Ken Bennett.
"That (admission) triggered the part of the state law that says if someone other than a candidate's committee puts up signs, they have to disclose on the sign who paid for those signs," Bennett said on Friday. "Once we realized it wasn't her committee that had done so, then the signs became known to us as being in violation."
Bennett said while he can seek penalties against the offending sign erectors, he has no power to take them down.
But they are coming down.
Christine Zielonka, director of development and sustainability for the city of Mesa, said that lack of disclosure violates her city's codes. And some signs, she said, were illegally placed in the public right of way.
"We had just assumed that she was responsible for the signs because she hadn't told us otherwise," Zielonka said. Now, with Cortes' sworn testimony, her staff realizes there is "no responsible party to bring the signs into compliance."
At this point city officials say they have taken down the six signs they have found.
That action may help Bennett unravel his mystery. Zielonka said the city will hold the signs for 10 days, as required by law, to see if whoever owns them wants to claim them.
Absent that, Bennett said his staffers will begin some sleuthing of their own.
He said they will peruse the campaign finance reports of other candidates to see who they have paid to print and erect their signs. Bennett said calls will be made to all of those companies to find out who printed the signs with Cortes' name, a quote attributed to her saying, "I will represent the PEOPLE," and the saying "Si, se puede," which originated with the United Farm Workers and loosely translates as "Yes, it is possible."
The penalty for violating the sign-disclosure law is a fine of three times the amount spent.
Bennett said, though, his office has no independent powers to penalize those who violate the sign-disclosure law. Instead, anything he finds has to be referred to the Attorney General's Office.
There may actually be two violations occurring.
State law does allow groups to spend money on behalf of candidates without their consent.
But these "independent expenditure" committees first have to register with the Secretary of State's Office. And Bennett said there is no record of any committee forming to aid Cortes.
Cortes' testimony came during questioning by attorney Tom Ryan who is representing those who want her name removed from the ballot. He contends she is a "sham" candidate, placed there by Pearce supporters to split the anti-Pearce vote between Cortes and candidate Jerry Lewis.
The inquiry about the signs was part of Ryan's series of questions to her designed to determine if she is a legitimate candidate or simply someone put up by others to aid Pearce.
Ryan is alleging that the real force behind the Cortes campaign is the East Valley Tea Party. But Greg Western, who is both the chairman of that group and working to help elect Cortes, said he, too, has no knowledge of the source of the signs.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Edward Burke said he will rule on Ryan's lawsuit by Monday.
• Garin Groff of the East Valley Tribune contributed to this story.