The chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee on Monday called on a beleaguered colleague to relinquish his role in the majority leadership following a physical altercation with his then-girlfriend last month.
“I am calling for Senator Bundgaard to step down as majority leader of the Republicans in the Senate,” said chairman Sen. Ron Gould, adding voters expect their senators to behave like gentlemen and ladies.
“Getting in a brawl on the side of a freeway is unbecoming of a senator,” he said.
The call by the Lake Havasu City Republican is perhaps more damaging than Democrats’ demand earlier in the day that the accused, Senate Majority Leader Scott Bundgaard, R-Peoria, also resign from the Legislature.
Gould’s public sentiments may represent only the tip of the iceberg.
Today, another Republican, Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, joined Gould’s call for Bundgaard to step down as majority leader.
Crandall said he spoke with about 10 Republicans during the last few days and six of them agreed with Gould’s position. He didn’t name those colleagues. (Crandall disclosed he knows both Bundgaard’s former girlfriend and her mother.)
“You do not have to be convicted of a crime to have committed an ethics violation. In theory, we’re held to a higher standard as elected officials,” Crandall said, adding Bundgaard’s priority should be to deal with the issue — not the “distractions of being a majority leader.”
Most senators largely kept silent in the ensuing days following the incident that landed Aubry Ballard in jail. Bundgaard, who is immune from arrest during the legislative session as a legislator, wasn’t charged following the incident on the shoulder of a major freeway. The two have since parted ways.
Democrats broke that silence on March 7, several days after a police report of the altercation came out. That report, Democrats argued, departed markedly from Bundgaard’s characterization of the incident.
Gould’s and Crandall’s statements reinforced pressure on the Republican caucus to take a position on the situation, which many Republicans even today are reluctant to do.
Senate President Russell Pearce refused to comment on Gould’s call for Bundgaard to relinquish his majority post — as did other Republicans.
But members of the majority caucus will be closely watching what Pearce does or says. It remains to be seen how long Pearce can take a “no comment” position.
If members approached him about ousting Bundgaard from leadership, Pearce will likely ask for a laundry list showing that a majority of the caucus — 11 out of the 21 members — back the proposal. If it comes to that, the election for a new majority leader would likely take place via a secret ballot in a closed-door caucus meeting.
Meanwhile, Capitol observers said if the police were to eventually charge Bundgaard, it would be harder for the Peoria Republican to hang on to his position, at the least, as majority leader.
In a press briefing this morning, Democrats demanded that Bundgaard resign from the Legislature or at the very least, resign his post as majority leader.
They also formally asked Gould to convene the Ethics Committee in order to investigate the incident.
“After reading the police report last Thursday, and seeing what actually occurred, which differed very greatly from what was relayed to us by the senator on the floor (on) the Monday following, we decided we could no longer be silent,” said Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson. “Silence would be tantamount to condoning domestic violence, tantamount to the senator invoking his legislative immunity to avoid going to jail, where the woman involved did spend the night, and silence would be condoning him continuing him as a member of this Legislature.”
But Bundgaard rejected Democratic demands for his resignation and suggested these calls may be politically motivated.
“Last week I apologized for being involved in an incident that generated criticism of our Capitol institutions and me. I reiterate my apology again today,” he said.
“I will clear my name as this issue works through the process, and as more information comes out. And I will do so in the face of the politics that have now been injected into this issue,” he added.
In calling for an ethics hearing, however, Democrats can’t exactly pinpoint what Senate rule Bundgaard violated.
There might not be exactly one that fits this case, they admitted.
But Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said by invoking legislative immunity, Bundgaard made it into a legislative problem.
“He has dragged the Legislature into this matter now,” he said.
Actually, the state Constitution spells out immunity for sitting lawmakers during session, and the police report made no mention that Bundgaard directly invoked that immunity, though he did mention his position to officers on scene.
When told that Bundgaard hasn’t been found guilty nor have the police charged him with a “breach of the peace,” one of the three circumstances that a legislative immunity wouldn’t apply, Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, said under typical standards both Bundgaard and Ballard should have been booked.
During the media briefing Lopez also said she finds it reprehensible that Bundgaard invoked his legislative immunity to avoid going to jail that night but “allowed” his girlfriend the humiliation of spending the night in jail.
Gould appeared to be weighing his next move very carefully. Earlier, he told the ~Arizona Capitol Times~ he has no interest in protecting Bundgaard from prosecution.
“(But) I’m not sure that that’s the proper role of the Ethics Committee,” he said. Gould said he also has never held an Ethics Committee hearing so he needs to talk with counsel to see what his committee’s actual powers are. He added that he doesn’t want the pending criminal investigation to be colored by actions of the Ethics Committee.
Gould was clearly perturbed by the police report of the incident.
“You know what? If that was my daughter and we still operated under the old school rules, something would’ve already happened,” Gould said. “You used to have the dad and brother program that used to address these situations.”
Conflicting accounts in report
From the beginning, Bundgaard’s and Ballard’s stories have conflicted as to what led the couple to stop on the median on State Route 51 near Cactus Road on Feb. 25.
In a police report released March 2 concerning the roadside scuffle, she accused him of hitting her twice in the chest, throwing her cell phone out the driver’s side window and threatening to abandon her on the freeway.
According to Ballard, the couple was arguing as Bundgaard drove north on SR-51.
“During the argument, Senator Bundgaard used his right arm in a swinging motion and hit Ms. Ballard over her chest,” the report states.
Ballard told police he struck her twice. She struck back at his face with an open hand, and when she tried to call her parents for help, Bundgaard grabbed her phone and tossed it out the driver’s side window. Bundgaard then stopped the car on the inside shoulder of the carpool lane and both of them got out to look for the phone.
Ballard said Bundgaard threatened to leave her there, so she attempted to open the driver’s side door, which was locked. According to Ballard, Bundgaard eventually opened the door and pushed her down, skinning her knees.
Bundgaard’s version plays out differently.
In the police report, Bundgaard said Ballard was threatening to jump out of the car as they headed north on SR-51 and was trying to grab the steering wheel to crash his gold Mercedes-Benz into the concrete median.
At some point, Bundgaard said she began throwing his clothes out of the window of the car. Bundgaard said he got out of the car to retrieve his clothes and subsequently pulled her from the vehicle to prevent her from driving away and abandoning him.
According to the report, a witness, Rich Maiocco, told police that as he was entering the freeway at Shea Boulevard he saw “a man pushing or pulling a female next to the passenger side.”
“Rich (Maiocco) also stated that the female fell to the ground near the passenger door while the male had his hands on her,” the report states.
– Gary Grado contributed to this story.