The fallout from a domestic violence incident on the side of a Phoenix freeway last month has escalated into a mess that is imperiling the legislative career of one of Arizona’s most powerful politicians.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Bundgaard, a Republican from Peoria, is under mounting pressure to resign his leadership role, as critics, including some in his own caucus, said a Phoenix Police Department report of the scuffle he had with his then-girlfriend differed from his account.
So far, Bundgaard, the No. 2 man in the Senate, has survived demands that he relinquish his leadership position — thanks in part to the strong backing he got from Senate President Russell Pearce, who said Bundgaard is doing an “excellent job.” Previously, Pearce had said Bundgaard was “a victim” in the fracas, during which the girlfriend was arrested, but the senator who invoked legislative immunity, was not arrested.
In a statement, Pearce said who invoked his caucus won’t bow to pressure from the media and determine Bundgaard’s fate until all the facts have surfaced. The police department has said there will be supplemental police reports filed regarding the Feb. 25 incident.
“We decided the media will not drive us to rush to judgment. Even a state senator has a right to justice, and all the facts must be in before a decision can be made, and not tried and convicted by the media,” Pearce said in his March 8 written statement after a 90-minute closed-door meeting in which Bundgaard defended himself to his Republican colleagues.
He added: “There was a consensus in the caucus that action at this time would be premature and unfair.”
But the future remains uncertain for Bundgaard. His colleagues were willing to wait and see what those supplemental reports would say, but the majority weren’t exactly rushing to his defense.
Privately, some acknowledged that Bundgaard’s personal woes have made his GOP caucus mates politically vulnerable to charges that they’re shielding a person who was involved in domestic violence. But they also correctly pointed out that Bundgaard, to date, has not been charged with anything.
However, he hasn’t been charged because the state Constitution prevents lawmakers from being arrested or charged — except in the cases of felonies and breaches of the peace — during the legislative session. In his report, the police officer who responded to the incident between Bundgaard and Aubry Ballard said he believes the senator should be charged after the session ends.
Bundgaard’s own actions this week didn’t help his cause.
He had registered his attendance on March 9, but later skipped the action on the floor and missed numerous votes.
His absence was particularly conspicuous because he earlier had told reporters he would talk with them after the chamber wrapped up its work for the day.
The criticisms coming from Democrats have been unrelenting.
On March 8, the day that Republicans chose to keep Bundgaard as Senate majority leader following a closed caucus meeting, Democrats said the majority senators refused to hold one of their own accountable.
“It is disappointing that the Republican Caucus continues to refuse to take action on this issue,” said Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson. “We need to remove the cloud that is hanging over the Senate and focus on fixing the Arizona economy and creating jobs.”
Some of his fellow Republicans felt strongly that he should step down, but the caucus did not take a vote to replace him during that meeting. Instead, they plan to revisit the issue in the coming days.
Sen. Ron Gould, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, asked for the embattled senator’s resignation from leadership. Gould said he was disappointed that Bundgaard’s removal didn’t happen.
“I made my case. Apparently not well enough, though,” the Republican from Lake Havasu City said.
Republicans are predictably tight-lipped about the caucus meeting, but several sources who spoke on background because of the sensitivity of the issue said the conversation was candid and respectful.
Some, as expected, argued for Bundgaard’s resignation, saying the situation is a distraction and reflects poorly not just on the majority party but also on the entire chamber, the sources said.
Bundgaard said not all facts have surfaced yet, sources said, adding that Bundgaard gave the caucus some of that information.
According to the Associated Press, senators said Bundgaard’s plea to fellow Republicans to let him keep his leadership post included his assertion that during the quarrel, Ballard handled a gun in his car.
Two Republican senators on March 9 discussed what was said a day earlier in the closed majority caucus. They spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
The two senators said Bundgaard said he would be cleared on the basis of more information that will come out regarding the alleged domestic violence incident, including information on Ballard’s handling of a gun.
One of the two senators said Bundgaard said it was his gun. The other senator didn’t recall whether Bundgaard specified that.
Bundgaard’s assurance that exonerating evidence was forthcoming was decisive in the Republican caucus’ decision to let him keep his leadership post for at least another week, the two senators said.
A spokesman for Ballard said Bundgaard keeps a gun in his car, but that it was untrue that Ballard handled a gun during the incident.
“Aubry did no such thing,” said the spokesman, David Leibowitz. He added that Bundgaard’s story “just continues to change. It just continues to defy belief.”
A police report on the incident did not mention a gun being found or discussed, and a police spokesman said on March 9 he did not know whether police found a gun in the vehicle. Detectives are investigating the incident and are expected to write at least one additional report in about a week, said the spokesman, Sgt. Tommy Thompson.
Bundgaard’s removal, had it occurred this week, would have been a major shakeup, coming at a crucial period when lawmakers are in the thick of discussions about how to deal with hundreds of millions of dollars in budget deficit.
The job of the Senate majority leader includes rounding up the votes for crucial majority-sponsored legislation, such as the budget.
Meanwhile, Gould is still mulling the mechanics of a potential Ethics Committee hearing into the incident.
Since Democrats have officially asked for an investigation, Gould will have to decide what to do with their complaint.
But Gould was reluctant to hold the ethics investigation before any criminal prosecution against Bundgaard, assuming one actually takes place.
The object of an ethics investigation would be to decide whether Bundgaard violated the Senate’s code of ethics.
“But we’re not really an investigatory body. So I don’t want to damage Senator Bundgaard’s defense, and I don’t want to damage the prosecution’s case, which is why I’m concerned about how we operate that,” Gould said.
Pressure has been mounting on Bundgaard since the altercation with Ballard. She was booked, but Bundgaard, who has immunity as a legislator, wasn’t charged. The two have since parted ways.
But it wasn’t until March 7 that Republicans joined the calls for him to resign his leadership role.
“Getting in a brawl on the side of a freeway is unbecoming of a senator,” Gould said.
Earlier, Democrats argued that the police report departed markedly from how Bundgaard characterized what happened that night.
At the very least, he should resign his post as majority leader, they also said.
But Bundgaard rejected Democratic demands for his resignation and suggested such 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 on March 7.
“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.
— The Associated Press contributed to this article.