Sen. Scott Bundgaard is lobbying for the removal of the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, a clear attempt to push back as he faces a potential ethics inquiry over a roadside fight with his ex-girlfriend.
Bundgaard’s attorney, James Austin Woods, told Senate President Russell Pearce in a letter Tuesday that the Peoria Republican wouldn’t get a fair hearing if Sen. Ron Gould remains the panel’s chairman.
A Democratic senator filed an ethics complaint against Bundgaard, alleging he violated state law and broke the public trust since elected officials are supposed to operate under a “higher standard.”
Woods told the ~Arizona Capitol Times~ that Bundgaard would welcome and ethics hearing as a chance to show “once and for all, that he was misjudged” by people.
But in his letter to Pearce, Woods said Gould shouldn’t be part of that investigation.
“We will request only that Senator Gould — who has already publicly advocated violence upon the Senator in addition to pronouncing him guilty of both the now-dismissed charge of assault and soon-to-be dismissed charge of endangerment — recuse himself from this proceeding so that it may be conducted fairly and impartially in a transparent manner for all to see,” Woods wrote.
Elaborating on the letter, Woods said in an interview that a fair hearing can’t be assured if Gould remained on the panel given his previous statements on Bundgaard.
Gould, a Lake Havasu City Republican, was among a few legislators who publicly asked Bundgaard to resign as Majority Leader shortly after the Feb. 25 incident.
He has indicated he would like to see an ethics inquiry take place, saying Bundgaard’s “no contest” plea to a misdemeanor endangerment charge means the Peoria Republican agreed there’s enough evidence to convict him.
Gould said he won’t go “tit-for-tat with some defense attorney,” noting that Woods’ letter suggested he threatened Bundgaard with violence.
“You know, I think this is why defense attorneys have a bad name in society, and that’s really all I have to say about it. It’s baseless,” he said.
Pearce, meanwhile, could not be reached for comment.
Bundgaard and his then-girlfriend, Aubry Ballard, offered differing accounts of what happened during freeway fracas on State Route 51 in Phoenix. Both emerged from the incident with visible bruising, police said.
Bundgaard maintained he was attacked by his ex, while Ballard said he hit her first.
Nevertheless, Bundgaard, whom police reports said had claimed legislative immunity, walked away a free man, while Ballard was taken to jail, where she spent the night.
Multiple witnesses, including an off-duty police officer, said Bundgaard was the aggressor and police said Ballard’s version of events closely resembled their account, while the lawmaker’s statements “do not match up as closely, and in some cases do not match up at all.”
Later, Bundgaard told fellow Republican senators that the argument became physical when his girlfriend attempted to get his handgun from his vehicle’s center console. However, he did not tell that to police at the time.
The Peoria Republican was subsequently charged with misdemeanor offenses, but he avoided public trial by reaching a deal with prosecutors.
Under the terms of the agreement, Bundgaard pleaded “no contest” to reckless endangerment and agreed to take a year of domestic violence counseling. His lawyer said technically, this plea would be entered only if he failed to complete his counseling class while completion would mean the dismissal of the endangerment charge.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, dropped a misdemeanor assault charge against him.
Gould said in March that if his daughter was involved in the domestic violence incident and “old school” rules were still in effect, “something would’ve already happened.… You used to have the dad and brother program that used to address these situations.”
Gould said he wasn’t surprised by Bundgaard’s move, as he said he expected the Peoria Republican and his lawyer would try to discredit him and “attack my integrity.”
Gould maintained he hasn’t judged Bundgaard and said he can render an impartial judgment.
While ultimately directed at Gould, Bundgaard’s move potentially has the effect of putting Pearce in a tight spot.
As Senate president, only Pearce has the authority to replace Gould as chairman of the ethics panel. He can also remove him from the panel.
Pearce isn’t entirely a bystander in this case. A political ally of Bundgaard, he came to his fellow Republican’s defense within days of the incident, saying he was a “victim of this whole thing.”
But if he took Gould’s chairmanship away, Pearce faces a potential backlash from his critics, many of whom would readily paint him as shielding a political ally who faced a domestic violence-related offense.
At a time when he’s fighting for his legislative seat in a recall election, such a move could be politically toxic for the Senate president.
When asked about Bundgaard’s latest move, Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, said he should just resign from the Legislature.
“I just can’t believe we’re spending this amount of time (on the case),” she said. “Just step down and stop it already with this.”
Since Gould did not summarily dismiss the ethics complaint filed by Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, against Bundgaard, it’s now up to the ethics panel to decide whether to proceed with a full-blown inquiry.
The committee is expected to meet in the coming days.
Gould said he will likely vote to go ahead with the hearing, given the police report and Bundgaard’s “no contest” plea.
“It’s not an admission of guilt. It’s an admission that you believe that the court has the evidence to convict you,” Gould said about the plea bargain.