Sen. Scott Bundgaard avoided a criminal trial, but a decision today by his colleagues to hold a full-blown ethics investigation ensures he won’t escape the political wringer.
In a 3-1 vote, the Senate Ethics Committee decided there’s sufficient reason to investigate what happened on Feb. 25, when Bundgaard and his then-girlfriend emerged bruised and scraped from a fight on the side of a Phoenix freeway.
The ethics complaint against Bundgaard, filed by Democratic Sen. Steve Gallardo, alleged he violated state law and broke the public trust. His punishment could range from censure to a recommendation that the Senate remove him from office.
The committee could also dismiss the complaint following the inquiry.
The committee members said they expect a full-fledged investigation that will be similar to a criminal trial, with subpoenaed witnesses, testimony, lawyers and cross-examinations.
The ethics hearing could further weaken Bundgaard’s political future, which many political insiders say is already damaged by the domestic-violence allegations.
His lawyers, however, are confident that the public trial will exonerate the Peoria Republican.
Yet longtime Capitol observers have said far from salvaging his reputation, an ethics investigation would only ensure that the spotlight is continuously trained on Bundgaard — and along with it all the publicity that comes with an unwanted political controversy.
Republican Sens. Ron Gould, the committee’s chairman, and Steve Yarbrough of Chandler joined Democratic Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor of Phoenix in voting to move forward with the investigation.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs voted against holding an inquiry. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, who was in Seattle for a higher education conference, missed the meeting.
Bundgaard didn’t attend the hearing, but his lawyers, Mark Goldman and James Austin Woods, both spoke to defend him.
After the hearing, Goldman told reporters he was disappointed but not surprised by the panel’s decision.
“Because unfortunately I think there are political overtones to this matter that go beyond Mr. Bundgaard’s character and innocence that are probably affecting these decisions, unfortunately,” Goldman said.
He wouldn’t elaborate when pressed by reporters.
But Constantin Querard, Bundgaard’s political consultant, earlier insinuated that Gould may be regarding Bundgaard as a potential Congressional rival.
Republican members of the panel threw enough curve balls during the meeting to keep everybody guessing, right until the very end, about how they would vote.
The biggest surprise was Yarbrough’s move at the beginning of the hearing to ask that Gould and Landrum Taylor recuse themselves from the investigation because of what they have said or done involving Bundgaard’s case in the past.
Yarbrough said a judge who made comments or actions similar to Gould’s or Landrum Taylor’s should step down from hearing the case. It’s important that members, who will serve quasi-judicial roles, not only are fair but also “appear fair and impartial,” said Yarbrough, a lawyer himself.
Gould made public his desire to have a hearing take place, and even suggested to Bundgaard to resign so he would be spared from the “media circus” that would follow.
Landrum Taylor was the legislator who originally filed an ethics complaint against Bundgaard in March. That complaint was dismissed.
Both legislators said they’re staying on the panel.
Later, Yarbrough decided the complaint was sufficient for a hearing to take place.
During the meeting, Bundgaard’s lawyers tried to impress upon the panel’s members that ultimately, the two charges against Bundgaard would end in dismissal and his record is then wiped clean.
They were, in effect, trying to downplay or counter any negative connotation arising from the plea deal. Woods, one of the lawyers, also told the committee that the “no contest” plea was based on Bundgaard pulling over on the wrong side of the freeway that night.
But Biggs, who told the lawyers he once did prosecution and defense work, wasn’t entirely swayed by this characterization.
Biggs read from the plea deal, which said that by entering it, Bundgaard is “pleading guilty” to the charge and if he doesn’t complete the diversion program, a guilty judgment would be entered and a sentence imposed. The plea also says if he completes counseling, the endangerment charge would be dropped.
But Biggs said the court made a finding, which was the basis for the plea — except that it suspended entering a judgment at this point.
“I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that this thing gets flossed (and) it’s gone because it’s critical to remember that a finding was made,” Biggs said.
The ethics complaint stemmed from the Feb. 25 freeway fight involving Bundgaard and his ex-girlfriend Aubry Ballard.
Bundgaard and Ballard offered differing accounts of what happened during freeway fracas on State Route 51 in Phoenix.
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 match up at all.”
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.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, dropped a misdemeanor assault charge against him.
The domestic-violence case cost Bundgaard his majority leader post in the Senate.
The panel will meet again on Sept. 20 to iron out additional rules to govern the trial.
An ethics trial is rare, but it is not unprecedented. Just three years ago, the Senate Ethics Committee decided to hear a compliant against Rep. Jack Harper, R-Surprise, who was then a member of the Senate.
The complaint stemmed from Harper’s actions during a debate on the contentious marriage amendment proposal near the end of session in June 2008.
Harper had admitted he intentionally turned off the microphones of two Democrats in the middle of debate and later apologized for his actions, but the ethics panel decided at the end of the hearing that he did not commit an ethics violation.
The main difference, however, is that the 2008 ethics hearing was, in a sense, purely political since it involved a filibuster by the Democrats, Sen. Paula Aboud and former Sen. Ken Cheuvront, and how Harper ended it.
Bundgaard’s case, however, stems from a criminal case and the people that could be called to testify in this case are police investigators and witnesses.