A Haunted Past

Republican Paul Babeu remains mired in scandal in his congressional race against Democrat Tom O’Halleran

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu has great presence in front of Tea Party audiences or on Fox News.

He can blast the Obama administration with the best of them on border security, the Affordable Care Act, the EPA's efforts to rein in greenhouse gases and other topics near and dear to the hearts and minds of the GOP's conservative wing.

But as he makes his second effort to win an Arizona congressional seat, Babeu has been unable to escape scandals from his past.

Babeu is facing Democrat Tom O'Halleran, a former Republican state lawmaker who most recently sought a state Senate seat as an independent in 2014 before joining the Democratic Party ahead of announcing his plans to run for the Congressional District 1 seat left open by Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick's decision to challenge Sen. John McCain. Congressional District 1 is an enormous district that includes Marana and Oro Valley, much of rural Eastern Arizona and a large swath of Northern Arizona, including Flagstaff and the Native American reservations.

While Democrats have a registration advantage in the district, it is one of the most competitive in the nation. Kirkpatrick won it in both 2012 and 2014, but by relatively narrow margins.

This year, though, the National Republican Campaign Committee is not investing nearly the number of dollars for Babeu as it did for previous GOP candidates Jonathan Paton and Andy Tobin, which has led political observers to suggest that polling has shown O'Halleran has a significant advantage. Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on behalf of O'Halleran. Earlier this month, Roll Call moved the race from the "toss-up" column to "tilts Democrat," while the Cook Political Report still has it in the "toss-up" column.

O'Halleran and the DCCC have hammered Babeu for his stint as headmaster of a Massachusetts school for special-needs children from 1999 to 2001. While Babeu managed the school and after he left the job, the state of Massachusetts investigated complaints that the students were being abused though extreme disciplinary strategies. Eventually, the Massachusetts school closed after the death of its founder, Michael DeSisto.

Babeu has alternately said he wasn't aware of the abusive practices or downplayed whether they really were abusive. He has tried to set the record straight by assembling 1,700 pages of documents related to the school, noting that his name was only mentioned three times in all the documents.

But his defense has been undermined by a 1999 home video of Babeu at a family gathering that shows him praising the disciplinary practices and saying that the students who attend the school are so "bonkers" that they "need to feel hopeless and feel depression and complete failure."

Babeu also filed a bar complaint against Katherine Clark, a former general counsel for the Massachusetts Office of Childcare Services who now represents Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives, because Clark had been critical of Babeu's role in her investigation of the school.

The Massachusetts Bar Association dismissed Babeu's complaint last month, saying that the Bar Association is not obligated to investigate claims regarding events more than six years old.

"This is not the forum to be retrying the DeSisto School matter," wrote First Assistant Bar Counsel John W. Marshall.

Clark herself traveled to Arizona last week to counter Babeu's claims that he had nothing to do with the school's troubled programs, saying that the state began investigating after receiving "numerous complaints of ritualistic child abuse against students under the guise of a therapeutic model."

The initial investigation, according to Clark, began in spring 2000 as her agency looked into why the school was unlicensed despite having so many students with special needs. She said that over the next year, while Babeu was headmaster, he and other school officials "blatantly stonewalled" the investigation.

Clark said as the investigation unfolded, she "had never seen that level of consistent abusive practices toward students. The school really had created very dangerous practices, whether it was cornering—having students stand or sit in a chair not just for a time-out period but for hours, days, weeks, even months at a time. We had one case where a student's therapeutic medication became so low, he ended up becoming severely depressed. He has been completely isolated from students, his parents, a therapist. He was not attending classes. He began to urinate and defecate on himself. He was finally taken to the hospital, treated for pneumonia, and then the school returned him to the corner. These were very common practices, many of which you see Paul Babeu, in the 1999 videotape, not only acknowledging that he knew about but praising them as ways to get students to bottom out. There were strip searches conducted by staff and students of other students, there were barricades erected to keep students in their rooms, denial of food and water was a common tactic that they used to control these kids. It really was a house of horrors for many of these children."

O'Halleran says the home video of Babeu boasting about the school's practices "disqualifies him from running for Congress."

"I have a whole history of dealing with the safety of children at the Legislature," O'Halleran says.

O'Halleran is a far different politician than Babeu. The former Chicago cop and business owner developed a reputation for working across party lines during his time in the Arizona Legislature while Democrat Janet Napolitano was governor. While Babeu has hammered O'Halleran for supporting budgets that increased state spending, O'Halleran has responded that the budgets increased spending on education, including creating an all-day kindergarten program that has since been eliminated by GOP lawmakers, and investing in infrastructure, such as the widening of Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix.

"We put more money into colleges and our universities and our K-12 system to improve the future of our children," O'Halleran said during a KAET-TV debate last month. "And we dealt with Child Protective Services reform and the ability for our children to have health care under KidsCare program."

O'Halleran has focused much of his campaign on the importance of improving the political environment in Congress and reducing the partisan jockeying that now takes place.

"One of the main reasons I'm running is the dysfunctional atmosphere you see in Congress," he says.

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