This new background check policy is only the latest retaliation from Gowan’s House

Jim Small//April 8, 2016

This new background check policy is only the latest retaliation from Gowan’s House

Jim Small//April 8, 2016

Journalists work in the Arizona House gallery on April 7 after refusing extensive background checks. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)
Journalists work in the Arizona House gallery on April 7 after refusing extensive background checks. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

A note from the editor:

House Republican leaders defended their decision this week to revoke the credentials of the dedicated Capitol reporters by saying the new policy requiring background checks of the Fourth Estate, which allow them to access the press tables they’ve sat at on the House floor since at least the 1970s, is merely about ensuring the safety of the chamber’s 60 elected officials.

We wholeheartedly disagree, and see the move not only as an attack on the press and an affront to the concept of accountable government, but direct retaliation against us and one of our reporters who exposed how House Speaker David Gowan was using state vehicles to crisscross the state and advance his congressional bid.

Jim Small

Naturally, the House has denied that the policy is payback for any media coverage, whether from our reporter Hank Stephenson or another outlet. Yesterday, House Republican spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham unequivocally rejected the idea that revenge was a motivating factor.

“If we were going to be targeting [Stephenson], why would we wait months and months?” she told Phoenix New Times reporter Ray Stern.

Funny she should say that, given the months of retaliation we have endured. And since this isn’t the first time the chamber has tried to prevent Stephenson, if not our entire staff, from accessing the floor.

The actions of the House since January serve as strong evidence that this sweeping policy has less to do with security than it does with retribution against a reporter who dared to investigate the most powerful person in the chamber.

This new policy actually marks the third time Gowan and his staff have tried to bar Hank Stephenson from covering the chamber.

On Jan. 8, four hours after the story about Gowan’s use of fleet vehicles was published, Grisham rescinded the Capitol Times’ access to the media gallery on the opening day of the legislative session.

When I called Grisham to get an explanation, she made no bones about the fact that the paper’s access had been pulled because of the story. She accused the paper of working for Chandler attorney Tom Ryan, who was quoted in the original story saying he intended to file a complaint against Gowan and the others for misusing the state vehicles.

“This can be worked out with attorneys. I’m not going to go any further,” she said before hanging up the phone in the middle of my follow-up question.

In the story, Stephenson detailed how Gowan had used the vehicles to attend political events with a clear nexus to his congressional campaign. It also catalogued how House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro used the vehicles for personal use, in violation of state law and policies.

The night before the story on the House’s use of fleet vehicles was published, Grisham informed the paper that it would have two seats in the press gallery when the Legislature began its session Jan. 11.

But after the story was published, she notified the Capitol Times by email that “there won’t be any space” for the paper on the floor because the chamber had received too many media RSVPs.

Instead, she said its reporters could watch the day’s proceedings, including Gov. Doug Ducey’s state of the state speech, via closed-circuit television in a hearing room on another floor.

The next day, House Deputy Chief of Staff Brett Mecum met with my publisher, Ginger Lamb, as part of an effort to get our access restored. Mecum said the only way that would happen would be if someone other than Stephenson or me – I covered the House for six years – was assigned to cover the House. He also suggested all access issues would be resolved if Stephenson was dismissed from his job.

Needless to say, we never entertained his demands.

Then in early February, the House’s attorney wrote a letter to Lamb outlining claims of “rude and inappropriate conduct” on the House floor by Stephenson. He was accused of a “consistent lack of decorum” since the session began, including that he regularly types on his computer during the chamber’s daily prayer, that he was overly aggressive when questioning elected officials and that he asked accusatory questions of Gowan and House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro.

Those claims had no basis in fact, as evidenced by witness testimony we secured and recordings of the interviews cited by the House attorney.

Not coincidentally, the letter came a day after Stephenson asked Montenegro about his use of a state vehicle to attend a July 2015 American Legislative Exchange Conference summit in San Diego.

In both cases, our attorneys at Ballard Spahr threatened to take the House to federal court. In both cases, the House backed down and allowed Stephenson to continue doing his job unimpeded.

Not only is there a consistent pattern of Gowan and his aides targeting Stephenson, but there’s a clincher in the case of the most recent policy: Before the deadline for reporters to consent to the invasive background check, a member of House Republican leadership seemed to know that Stephenson would be deemed a security risk and denied access to the floor, even though he had told no one about his 2014 misdemeanor trespassing conviction except for his immediate family and his employer.

The new House policy that Gowan implemented March 31 specifically bans anyone with a trespassing charge in the last five years from being able to access the House floor.

On April 6, several hours before the deadline given to the media, House Majority Whip David Livingston approached Stephenson on the House floor.

“I hear you’ll be retiring as of tomorrow,” Livingston said. Stephenson deflected, joking with Livingston that the Republican only wished that were the case.

“I don’t wish (that),” Livingston responded, before acknowledging that others do.

– Jim Small is editor of the Arizona News Service, which publishes the Capitol Times.