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After 7 months, House fails to release state-funded travel documents

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Seven months after the Arizona Capitol Times requested documents related to a spike in state-funded travel authorized by House Speaker David Gowan, the Arizona House of Representatives has yet to release any documents that would shed light on which legislators and employees were taking trips and for what purpose.

The House has twice promised to compile the records by a certain date but then failed to do so.

Arizona public records laws require that public bodies provide access to public records “promptly.”

On Jan. 19, the Capitol Times requested copies of all of the mileage, travel and expense forms submitted by all legislators and House staff during calendar year 2015. The forms requested include both those that allow the state to pay directly for travel and for reimbursement of expenses if a lawmaker or employee paid the cost out of his or her pocket.

An identical request was filed with the Arizona Senate, which supplied the requested documents on Jan. 21.

On Jan. 28, House Majority General Counsel Rob Ellman said it would take until the end of February to provide the requested documents, but said a spreadsheet summarizing all House travel expenses could be created in less than a week.

A week later, on Feb. 3, House Majority spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said the request was being “worked on,” but did not know when it would be complete. Twice over the next week, she and Ellman said the records request was being processed, but there was no timeline for it to be completed.

In response to questions about the status of the request on Feb. 10, Grisham said the Capitol Times should sue the House if it was unhappy with the slow progress.

In mid-March, Grisham said the request had not been filled because the “middle of the (legislative) session” was a busy time. She again had no estimate for when the summary document of House travel would be completed.

In late May, about three weeks after the legislative session ended, the Capitol Times again inquired about the status of the records request, but received no response. Three weeks later, Communications aide Matthew Modesitt would say only that the House was making “great progress” on them.

On June 21, Ellman told a corporate attorney for GateHouse Media, the parent company of Capitol Times, that the records would be turned over July 1. However, in an email shortly before the close of business July 1, Ellman wrote that the House would not meet that deadline, “despite diligent efforts.”

“We are continuing our efforts and I will contact you as soon as the documents are ready,” Ellman wrote in that July 1 email.

There has been no further communication about the records in the more than six weeks since.

Capitol Times is not the only entity whose public records requests of the House have not been filled. On July 7, The Arizona Republic reported that the House had not released any documents related to an extensive background check Gowan briefly subjected reporters to in April. The paper reported that a House staffer in late June, more than two months after the request was submitted, said he was in the “initial phases” of gathering the documents.

And in June, Defend Rural Arizona PAC, a political committee supporting one of Gowan’s then-opponents in the 1st Congressional District’s Republican primary, announced that the House had not complied with a public records request it submitted for information on Gowan’s travel nearly three months earlier. Gowan has since ended his congressional campaign.

“This is a classic example of a career politician who thinks he’s above the law. It should come as no surprise that he is under investigation,” said James Harris of Defend Rural Arizona in a written statement at the time.

Documents provided by Defend Rural Arizona show that it took the House five weeks to acknowledge it had received the public records request.

It is unclear what the House travel records the Capitol Times requested will reveal, but reports filed with the Arizona Department of Administration’s General Accounting Office show that taxpayer-funded travel by House staff and legislators skyrocketed during Gowan’s tenure as speaker.

In 2015, the chamber reported spending $72,000 on travel for legislators and staff. That’s more than the House spent in 2013 and 2014 combined, when the chamber spent about $32,000 and $33,000, respectively.

General Accounting Office records also show that, in the two months immediately after the Capitol Times requested information on House travel, legislators and/or staff repaid the House nearly $4,400 in travel expenses. Those repayments include eight airline tickets, meals and reimbursements paid for miles driven in a private vehicle.

That is on top of the more than $12,000 that Gowan repaid the House in January, following a Capitol Times investigation into the House’s use of state vehicles. He refunded the chamber for mileage reimbursements he claimed for trips that he actually took in state vehicles and for days he claimed to work but did not.

The General Accounting Office’s data doesn’t tie travel expenditures to individual House lawmakers or staffers or provide details about the destination or purpose of the travel, but the records Capitol Times has requested from the House will.

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