Tucson Tech 

The operators of the defunct Tucson Tech “prep school” have been granted two restraining orders against a Pinal County sports journalist who first reported on the couple’s questionable business practices targeting student athletes looking for a second chance.

But the journalist, Ralph Amsden, is asking the court to dismiss the injunctions, arguing that calling out the couple on Twitter for misleading young athletes doesn’t amount to harassment, especially because he wasn’t sending direct messages to either of the plaintiffs, Sharon and Jeff Pichotta.

“Twitter is a public forum,” he said. “It wasn’t meant for them. It was for the people who are following me.”

Last month in Pima County Consolidated Justice Court, a judge granted Sharon and Jeff Pichotta’s two petitions for injunctions against harrassment, based on 16 tweets sent by Amsden since summer 2017. Amsden, who was served with the orders on March 20, is fighting the injunctions during a Friday hearing in justice court.

The tweets in question link to both Amsden’s own reporting on the couple, as well as the Arizona Daily Star’s coverage of the controversial Tucson Tech school.

Last fall, the Pichottas settled allegations from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office that their program violated the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act. The settlement prohibits the couple from pursuing another Tucson Tech-like program without state approval.

Sharon and Jeff Pichotta did not respond to the Star’s questions — transmitted through their Phoenix-based attorney, Ruth Carter — on the injunctions.

Amsden, publisher of ArizonaVarsity.com, said he feels obligated to warn vulnerable athletes and their parents that the Pichottas’ practices have harmed other student-athletes emotionally and financially, in case the couple starts recruiting again for another venture.

“I will reiterate that I definitely come off as petty here (in the tweets). But at the same time, I had to speak to these kids who had their credit wrecked” because of their housing arrangement while at Tucson Tech, he said. “I don’t feel bad about once every two months tweeting about it.”

In their petitions for injunctions, the Pichottas did not say the tweets were false; they stated that Amsden was harassing them and provided printed-out copies of the tweets.

Dan Barr, attorney for the First Amendment Coalition, said it’s hard to understand how the judge granted the requests for injunctions against harassment. The tweets in question are either opinion statements protected under the First Amendment, or statements of fact based on Amsden’s and the Star’s reporting, Barr said.

Under Arizona law, the definition of “harassment” has both subjective and objective components, Barr said. Subjectively, harassment is a series of acts that would “cause a reasonable person to be seriously alarmed, annoyed or harassed.”

On the objective side, the statute also states that to be considered harassment, the acts must serve no legitimate purpose. Barr said Amsden’s tweets do serve a purpose: to inform the public about the Pichottas’ practices.

“His tweets are dealing with an issue of public importance concerning what happens to these kids and the legitimacy of this school,” he said. “It not only serves a legitimate purpose, but it’s core speech protected by the First Amendment.”

JUSTICE OF THE PEACE

Justice of the Peace Keith Bee is the judge who granted the Pichottas’ requests for an injunction. Bee, a Republican, served eight years in the Arizona Senate and two years in the Arizona House of Representatives.

Judges are prohibited from discussing ongoing cases, said Lisa Royal, court administrator for the county justice court. Justices of the peace, like Bee, don’t have to be lawyers and Bee is not one, she said.

The injunction says Amsden can't have any contact with the Pichottas at their home or place of work. Amsden is concerned about what would happen if he encountered the Pichottas while reporting on high school sports.

"If I run into them on a high school sideline or something, I could go to jail," he said.

In 2015, Amsden first reported on the Pichottas’ efforts to launch a post-high-school football program for student-athletes hoping to use the experience to segue into playing at a higher level. Amsden reported on the apparent dysfunction within the program, which was then called Arizona Prep Sports Academy, and its detrimental impact on some of its participating athletes.

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The Star pursued the story in 2016, investigating myriad complaints from current and former athletes with the program, rebranded as “Tucson Tech.” The Tucson Tech program eventually lost its housing after failing to pay rent, forcing athletes to scramble for a place to stay. (Sharon Pichotta uses her husband’s last name in the recent court documents, but she previously told the Star she goes by her maiden name, Shalosky.)

Tucson Tech also lost its contract with a local food bank after the Star reported the couple was charging its athletes thousands of dollars for the food donations that were intended for the needy, in violation of food-bank rules.

SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT

At least two parents filed complaints with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, the Star reported. The office investigated and reached a settlement agreement with the Pichottas in October. The agreement, called an “assurance of discontinuance,” settled the state’s allegations that the Pichottas violated the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act and notes that the Pichottas deny the allegations.

The settlement said the violations occurred when the couple led their athletes to believe their rent would be paid at a Tucson apartment complex but still had the athletes sign the leases there “as a formality.” When the Pichottas failed to pay the rent, the athletes were pursued for delinquent payments.

Under the agreement, the Pichottas must not operate or manage a program that, like Tucson Tech, is geared toward high school graduates who were not selected to play sports at a NCAA Division I or Division II school, without first getting approval from the Arizona State Board of Private Postsecondary Education. They also must pay the state $2,000 in consumer restitution and $3,600 in attorneys’ fees.

When Amsden wrote most of the tweets, his Twitter account was blocked by Jeff Pichotta and Amsden said he didn’t expect the Pichottas to see his tweets. He said he has never met Pichotta’s wife and business partner, and only called her once three years ago when he was seeking a comment for his story.

In an October tweet cited by the Pichottas as harassment, Amsden posted a screenshot from his ArizonaVarsity.com Twitter account showing that Jeff Pichotta’s account had again followed him on Twitter. Amsden’s tweet said, “Oh hey since you decided to follow me again now’s as good a time to remind you as any that you’re the worst.” Amsden then included a link to his 2016 story on Tucson Tech and the Pichottas.

“He reblocked me like, five seconds later,” Amsden said.

Even if the judge doesn’t dismiss the restraining orders on Friday, Amsden said he will continue to tweet reminders about the Pichottas’ practices because he’s concerned they’ll try to launch a similar program in the future.

“A lot of people try to make money off of high school athletics,” he said. “The potential exists for me to be penalized over tweets about what I feel to be a legitimate news item. But I’m not stopping. I can’t. ... I feel like it’s important for kids to know what to do, what not to do, who to deal with, and who not to deal with.”

Contact reporter Emily Bregel at ebregel@tucson.com or 573-4233. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel