PHOENIX – A Christian minister seeking the congressional seat of a disgraced Arizona congressman is labeling reports that that he traded suggestive texts with a female staffer who included a topless photo of herself in one of the exchanges as "tabloid trash."
But former state Sen. Steve Montenegro didn't deny that he received the messages.
Meanwhile, one of the other Republican front-runners in the race to replace former Rep. Trent Franks, former state Sen. Debbie Lesko, is under fire for transferring $50,000 from her old state campaign fund to an independent group backing her congressional election bid.
The revelations are likely to roil the 12-way GOP race in the final days leading up to Tuesday's special primary election to fill the vacant U.S. House seat in the state's 8th Congressional District, a Republican stronghold in the western Phoenix suburbs that hasn't elected a Democrat in more than three decades through various district layouts.
The reports come on the day mail-in ballots, which represent about 3/4 of those expected to be cast in the primary, should be postmarked. It's unclear whether they could bolster a Democrat's chances to win the GOP-heavy district in the April general election.
Montenegro called the Arizona Republic and KPNX-TV 12 reports "tabloid trash that conservatives around this country have to deal with on a regular basis."
"I am blessed with an amazing wife and marriage," he said in a statement. "The media wants to drag us down with just a week to go, but we are not going to dignify this false tabloid trash with any further response."
Montenegro was Franks' district director and touts himself as a Christian minister and family man with a wife and young daughter.
The Republic said it reviewed a series of flirtatious messages on a cellphone account Montenegro has used in conversations with its reporters. The junior-level staffer who sent the messages repeatedly declined to speak with the newspaper.
The messages The Republic reviewed run between June 15 and Feb. 1. Much of the time, the messages involve work, personal lives, the weather, swimming pools and hot tubs, and the World Series.
But during one exchange in November, the woman sent him a topless photo of herself, which came while he was in Tennessee at a summit on education reform.
Montenegro reportedly responded: "You should have come."
Franks resigned in December after acknowledging he had discussed surrogacy with two female staffers. A former aide told The Associated Press that he pressed her to carry his child and offered her $5 million to be a surrogate.
The resignation triggered a special election, with the primary on Tuesday and the general election on April 24. Two Democrats are seeking their party's nomination.
On the day Franks resigned, the staffer sent a message alluding to the scandal: "Yeah, you would never, ever have to worry about me. So I hope that puts you at some ease," adding, "I just saw that Trent Franks thing."
She received the response: "Crazy."
The allegations against Montenegro prompted a powerful state Capitol player, Center for Arizona Policy President Cathi Herrod, to say he should step aside.
"There comes a time when one has to speak out regardless of how difficult it might be when it regards a friend," Herrod tweeted Wednesday. "Absent a clear denial or evidence to the contrary, I call upon him to withdraw from #az08 race."
Former Gov. Jan Brewer, a Lesko supporter, also called on Montenegro to immediately "deny, confess, or withdraw."
Former state Rep. Phil Lovas, another GOP contender in the crowded primary, said Lesko should quit the race, and if the allegations are true, Montenegro also should step aside.
"Think about what's happened in this congressional district in the last two-plus months," Lovas said Wednesday. "The congressman had to resign due to a sexual harassment scandal. His hand-picked successor has reportedly had racy texts sent to him. Another candidate is running an illegal money laundering scheme with state money in a federal account."
Lovas said he filed complaints Wednesday with the FEC and the state attorney general for Lesko's transfers.
Lesko transferred $50,000 from her old state Senate campaign fund to an independent group that is backing her congressional campaign. Debbie Lesko's campaign consultant supplied a legal opinion that called the transfer above-board.
The transfer was first reported by an affiliate of the Arizona Capitol Times and disclosed in a Federal Election Commission filing earlier this week.