PHOENIX, AZ -- After being a legislator for 17 years and an elected official for 25, Arizona Senator John Huppenthal was acquitted late Thursday afternoon of stealing a campaign sign that he physically wrested from a 78 year old precinct committee person, Ruth Levin, in front of an apartment complex last year.
According to testimony at the trial in late July, Levin had been handing out literature for the opposing candidate and was taking a break, sitting on her husband's walker when Huppenthal tried to take the sign. Levin testified, "I grabbed hold of a lower corner with both hands, and I held on tight as I could, yelling for him to stop. He was able to pull it away from me pretty easily for him."
But Levin was not about to give up. When Huppenthal ran to his Lexus SUV and threw the sign inside, Levin followed him and grabbed a door handle on his car. According to Huppenthal, he was pulling out when his car door came flying open. Levin recounted the story after the verdict was read, "When I grabbed hold of the handle, I thought he would be reluctant to drive away with me hanging onto his car."
Levin says she had to let go to keep from being dragged, so she let go of the car door handle and grabbed a handful of business cards that were laying on the seat to use as evidence. She says Huppenthal drove a short distance down the middle of the street then stopped, closed his car door, and sped away. Huppenthal later testified that he thought he was being "carjacked by an older woman."
Huppenthal did not deny that a struggle took place with 78-year-old Ruth Levin, nor did he deny that he took the sign and tossed it into a nearby dumpster, though both Levin and Huppenthal have clarified that he and Levin never actually touched each other (just the sign and the car). But Huppenthal's lawyer argued that Huppenthal could not be found guilty of the charges (theft and tampering with a campaign sign) due to a legal technicality -- the owner listed on the charges may have been incorrect.
Huppenthal's legal arguments were based on two technicalities: (1) that Huppenthal could not be found guilty of theft if the owner listed in the charges was incorrect, and (2) that Huppenthal could not be found guilty of tampering with a campaign sign if the sign did not belong to a candidate.
According to the court, it is still unclear, even after testimony from Democratic Party staffers, who actually owned the sign. The legal owner of the sign was either owned by the Arizona Democratic Party (the owner listed in the charges) or an organization they funded, Victory 2008. Levin, a precinct committee person, says that the sign said, "Arizona Democratic Party" at the bottom.
The prosecutor argued that it does not matter who owned the sign or who was listed as the owner in the charges as long as the sign did not belong to Huppenthal when he took it. If he took the sign to deprive the owner of its use, the prosecutor argued, then it constitutes theft, regardless of who the legal owner may be.
Huppenthal also claimed that the content of the sign included an untrue smear about his public record on air quality at a local school, and because he disagreed with the content, he says he obtained permission from the apartment manager to remove the sign. In Arizona, only the owner of a campaign sign or the owner of the property where it is posted can remove a campaign sign. The apartment manager, however, testified in court that she thought Huppenthal wanted to remove his own sign.
Regarding Huppenthal's claim that the sign contained a smear, Levin says, "He can disagree and say we have it wrong, but we have a right to our opinion, and he took that right away."
A local justice of the peace issued a ruling Thursday afternoon that although Huppenthals actions were "brash and impetuous," they did not constitute theft because Huppenthal had permission from the apartment complex manager to remove the sign, and ownership of the sign was unclear. He also ruled that tampering with a campaign sign only applies to signs owned by candidates.
Huppenthal is running for Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2010, which is the highest education office in Arizona. Current Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne (R) also recently received negative publicity also after being caught speeding in a school zone and receiving 5 other speeding tickets in 18 months.
Levin recognizes the humor in this story and laughs as she retells it, "You have to laugh, but it isn't funny to say that a person with such low ethical standards is running for state superintendent of our schools."
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