Stephanie Grisham, a staffer on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, was supposed to resume her full-time job as a spokeswoman at the Arizona House of Representatives less than a week after he won the election.
There’s no evidence she did. She still got paid.
Arizona taxpayers paid Grisham roughly $19,000 over an eight-week period, although she rarely set foot in the state, never showed up for work at the House, and did little to nothing to earn the money, records show.
Instead, Grisham was hitting the road with President-elect Trump’s multi-state “thank you tour,” and working for his transition team, according to a review of public records, newspaper articles and social media posts.
Grisham initially took a long-term, unpaid leave from the House to work on Trump’s campaign, but lame-duck House Speaker David Gowan put her back on the public payroll for his remaining eight weeks in office, House payroll records show.
Grisham’s no-show is an extreme example of a common practice in the House in which the highest echelon of Republican political staffers are allowed to run out the clock on a departing speaker’s term in office.
They are often not even required to show up for the final few weeks of taxpayer-funded employment as the incoming speaker begins to assemble his team of top political staff.
The speaker is in charge of personnel decisions and has full discretion over the chamber’s nearly $14 million budget. And political patronage can run rampant.
Democratic, non-partisan and lower-level staffers don’t have the same leeway, and during transition periods, they are required to show up at the office, regardless of who is speaker.
Top political staffers are often awarded an “unofficial severance” of two months when they simply don’t have to show up in the office, rarely have to do any work, but are still paid for 40-hour workweeks.
Grisham’s two-month absence stands out, even at the House.
Top staffers typically don’t return from long-term unpaid leave just for those lame-duck transition months, as Grisham did. And most don’t live outside the state and hold another political job while they’re on the public payroll.
Following the election, there is no evidence Grisham, who is now director of communications for First Lady Melania Trump, actually returned to the state House, where she had worked since January 2015 until she took an unpaid leave to join the Trump campaign full-time in May 2016.
In fact, Grisham was rarely in Arizona during the time she was re-employed at the House. And she wasn’t doing much work for the House either, records show.
Instead, Grisham spent those two months crisscrossing the East Coast as a press handler for Trump’s post-election victory tour and, later, as press director for his transition team.
Speaker J.D. Mesnard and several House staffers and elected officials said they never saw Grisham at her office during that period, and some were even surprised to learn she had returned to the House as a paid employee for those months, since it was common knowledge she was working for Trump’s transition team.
Grisham didn’t return calls, texts or emails for comments. The White House didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
Brett Mecum, her supervisor at the House and longtime friend, said their former mutual boss, Gowan, was “100 percent happy with her performance.”
Gowan, who is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office for his use of state fleet vehicles for personal and campaign purposes, left office on January 9, 2017, after reaching his term limit and making an unsuccessful bid for Congress. He also didn’t return calls for comment.
After several attempts to reach Grisham, Mecum volunteered for an interview to defend her.
Mecum said it’s perfectly normal for House staffers from an outgoing administration to start clearing out of the chamber in preparation for the incoming administration, but continue to receive paychecks until the new speaker is officially sworn in on the opening day of the legislative session in January.
Mecum said he hardly ever showed up to the House during those months, either, but was on call and did what was asked of him.
He also said the chief of staff for a previous administration had “the same deal.”
“He didn’t have to show up and didn’t do a damn thing, and he was paid through the first day of session as well,” Mecum said.
A public records request to the House shows that Grisham did little to nothing toward the end of her tenure at the House.
She didn’t send a single email from her previously active House email account in those two months. She received the occasional mass email, but according to these records she had no professional interaction with coworkers. She also didn’t receive emails typical of an office environment, such as coworkers sharing humor, news articles or office gossip. Her public calendar shows only a handful of pre-scheduled recurring events, all of which were canceled.
There was no public or internal announcement that she had returned to her duties at the House. She wasn’t quoted once in any newspaper during that period speaking on behalf of Gowan or the House Republican caucus. And she didn’t author any press releases or handle public records requests during her re-employment. Those duties fell to a junior communications staffer.
In fact, for most of that period, Grisham didn’t even have an office at the House, as it had been taken over by another staffer.
Grisham’s social media posts show she spent the duration of her re-employment at the Arizona House frantically crisscrossing the East Coast, continuing her work for the president-elect post-campaign, then officially as a staffer on his transition team.
On her second day back on the job in Arizona, for example, Grisham was tagged on Facebook in a photo surrounded by reporters as the president held rolling meetings at Trump Tower.
She made at least four separate trips to New York, three separate trips to Florida, and at least one trip each to New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, Maryland and Alabama, all on Trump business.
Her tweets and Facebook posts were like a sightseeing tour.
She spotted a desert-themed window display at Bergdorf Goodman’s, a high-end department store in New York City, which reminded her of Arizona.
She took in the Army/Navy football game the next day with the president-elect at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland.
She captured a scene of palm trees and an expanse of green against a setting sun at Trump’s Mar-a-lago golf resort in Palm Beach, Florida, notifying her Facebook friends that is where her “office” would be for the next few days.
She made a 36-hour trip to Arizona over Thanksgiving, telling her Twitter followers she could not be happier. The House was closed for that Thanksgiving weekend.
A week after her employment ended with the House, she posted a photo of shopping bags, boxes, and luggage stacked to the top of a luggage cart in a hotel in New York City.
“This is what it looks like when you’ve lived in a hotel room for a few months . . . #MovingDay,” she wrote.
She was quoted in several national articles during her re-employment at the House, none of them relating to the Arizona House Republican caucus.
In one round of articles, Grisham explained that when Trump ditched the traveling press pool, it was for a “last minute trip” to his golf course outside Palm Beach, Fla. In another she explained that the traveling press corps was barred from entering a church with the president-elect. In another, she commented on her own official appointment to the Trump transition team on November 30.
STAFFERS HAVE TO SHOW
Tom Ryan, a personal injury attorney and political activist from Chandler who has filed lawsuits against a host of elected officials for alleged campaign finance violations, conflicts of interest and misappropriation of state funds, found it “very concerning” that one of the highest paid professional staff members in the Arizona House was not showing up at her taxpayer-funded job.
From his cursory review of Grisham’s social media and records obtained from the House, Ryan said it appears that taxpayers “got cheated” out of eight weeks of Grisham’s $109,000 annual salary.
“That is a misapplication of taxpayer money. We did not hire Stephanie Grisham as the spokesperson for the House to go work on the Trump transition. That’s the illegal thing,” he said.
He noted that illegal doesn’t necessarily mean criminal.
“Whether it’s criminal or not, I don’t know. But it’s clearly improper,” Ryan said.
Ryan said he plans to investigate the issue further, and if necessary, file for a writ of mandamus request to the Attorney General’s Office asking for an inquiry.
In November, when Grisham’s hire to the transition team was made public alongside the appointment of state Treasurer Jeff DeWit as an unpaid special advisor for operations, Ryan told the Associated Press that there was nothing illegal about DeWit taking the job.
“There is no requirement that Jeff DeWit provide 40 hours each week for the state treasurer’s office,” Ryan told the AP. “The framers of the Arizona Constitution believed that, if an elected official in a statewide office is not functionally doing their job, it will be reflected in the next election and they will be removed from office by the voters.”
Grisham’s situation is different, Ryan said, because she is not an elected official, but a state employee. That means the people have no recourse to un-elect her if she isn’t doing her job.
Not showing up for two months doesn’t fly for other state employees.
While the state employee handbook, issued by the Arizona Department of Administration, allows state workers to hold outside employment, there are strict rules about disclosing that outside employment in writing. State workers are also allowed to work from home, but are required to undergo training for it and must track the hours they spend on the job.
Not so for House employees, who are subject to a different set of human resources rules. In the House, the personnel policies are set by the speaker.
Mecum insisted Grisham was doing her job.
He said she checked in on a regular basis and even wrote several press releases and responded to several press inquiries at the time.
Grisham’s practice, like most press secretaries, was to send press releases in a mass email to media outlets, but no press releases or inquiries showed up in a review of Grisham’s email, and no quotes from her regarding the House appeared in local papers during that time.
“You and I both know that there’s light work to be done during the transition. But she did her job,” Mecum said.
Mecum said he didn’t find it strange that Grisham didn’t send a single email during her re-employment at the House, and added that he communicated with her only via text and phone calls.
The Capitol Times put in a records request for Grisham’s work-related text messages during that period, but she has not yet responded to the chamber’s attempts to get those records, according to House staff.
Mecum said a records request of his work-related texts would be fruitless.
“I think I’ve changed phones at least once since then, so go ahead, ask for my text messages,” he said.
Mecum refused to provide proof Grisham did any work for the House in that two-month span.
“I don’t need to give you proof. I’m telling you exactly the way it is,” he said.
And Mecum wouldn’t say whether he also had outside employment during those months.
“I don’t think that’s any of your business,” he said.
Mesnard, who took over after Gowan left office, said he didn’t think there was anything illegal about allowing House employees, who are state employees, to not show up at the office – as long as they’re doing what is asked of them.
“If they have responsibilities they’re supposed to do and they’re not doing them and they’re being compensated, that’s just a handout. But if the expectations become lower and lower as they transition, as is usually the case, then they’re doing what they’re asked, but they’re being asked to do less,” he said.
But Mesnard said the decision of whether outgoing staffers have to show up to work or not falls “entirely” to the incoming speaker – in this case him.
And while he specifically told several top Gowan staffers that he needed their offices for new staffers, and they could use their remaining days to “find another job,” he didn’t tell Grisham she could skip work.
“I never spoke with Mrs. Grisham. I’m not sure I knew what was happening with Mrs. Grisham,” he said. “Everybody else sat in their office until I asked them to vacate their office. . . I didn’t see her.”
Grisham’s case was also unusual, he said, because she had been gone on unpaid leave for six months, and came back only at the tail end of a lame-duck administration.
Ryan acknowledged that the speaker of the House has some flexibility in letting employees work from home.
“But some flexibility doesn’t mean you don’t have to appear at all. And there’s no evidence that she appeared or did anything for the state of Arizona in that timeframe. And she was clearly working for the Trump transition team,” Ryan said.
Mesnard said that during the transition – the time between when the new speaker is elected by House membership in November, and when the new speaker takes over in January – who is ultimately in charge is somewhat of a gray period.
The outgoing speaker allows the new speaker to hire staff in preparation for the new administration. And tradition dictates that the incoming speaker allow the old administration’s outgoing staff to stay on until the transfer of power is official, Mesnard said.
For example, Mesnard hired his own communications director to replace Grisham on December 5. But Mesnard didn’t necessarily have the authority to fire her, even if he had known she was still receiving a paycheck.
“You can call it a severance if you want, unofficially. There’s always those two months, unless you really hate someone,” he said.
But the same courtesy doesn’t apply to Democrats, according to former House Democratic chief of staff Keely Varvel.
Varvel left the House in December, rather than waiting until the final paycheck of the administration. She even had a gap where she wasn’t earning a paycheck before she started her new job in early January, she said.
Varvel said House staffers work incredibly long hours during the Legislative session and are awarded fair compensation time to make up for those overtime hours, but never more than a few weeks and only to make up for actual overtime they worked. And all of that was documented in the normal timekeeping system, she said.
Varvel said she didn’t realize outgoing top GOP staffers just don’t have to show up during a transition.
“All I can speak to is how we ran our caucus during the eight years I was there, and when I was in the Senate before that, and we never did anything like that,” she said.
Mesnard, a former legislative staffer, said there’s a line in the sand that, if an outgoing staffer finds another job before the new speaker takes over, they’re immediately terminated.
In fact, a public records request for the terms of Grisham’s return to full-time status at the House turned up only a pair of emails between the House human resources manager, and former chief of staff Tami Stowe on November 18.
The human resources manager wrote that “per our conversation,” Grisham would be removed from unpaid leave status and placed her back on the payroll as a full-time employee, effective November 14.
“That’s correct. Also, if she finds employment before January 6, 2017, she will be immediately terminated,” Stowe responded.
Grisham was officially hired as a transition team staffer for Trump on November 30, according to news reports. But she kept receiving a paycheck from the Arizona House through the end of Gowan’s administration. Stowe didn’t return a message for comment.
But Mecum said while the announcement that she was joining Trump’s transition team was made on November 30, Grisham might not have been paid until later.
And he implied the Capitol Times would be sued if the paper published that Grisham had been paid by the transition team during that period.
“Are you sure she was being paid starting November 30? Are you sure that’s when she went on federal payroll?… I’d hate for you to open yourself up for a lawsuit, buddy. I’m not the one you’re messing with this time,” he said.
While Grisham could not be reached, her lawyer, Christopher Rapp, threatened the Capitol Times with a lawsuit, saying the publication of false and defamatory statements regarding his client will “leave (Grisham) no alternative but to evaluate her legal rights to include legal proceedings against you asserting all available causes of action and seeking compensatory and punitive damages.”
Rapp demanded that any documents, including text messages, emails, audio recordings, and drafts be preserved “in anticipation of a potential dispute.”
Rapp said the failure to do so could result in court sanctions that could include “monetary sanctions.” Rapp also said his letter to the Capitol Times is an “off the record legal communication intended solely for the recipient and your counsel and not to be used for editorial purposes.”
There’s no way for the public to know when, nor how much, Grisham was paid from the transition, officially named Trump For America, Inc.
That’s because the transition team is a non-profit entity that accepts money from a variety of sources, but is not required to disclose line-item expenses, such as individual staff salaries, as campaign committees must disclose, and is not subject to open records laws, like government entities.
But she was paid by Trump For America, Inc., according to the transition team.
A list of agency landing team members, or members of the incoming president’s transition team, and the sources of their salaries posted on GreatAgain.gov, Trump’s transition webpage, shows that Grisham’s current or previous employer was Trump for America, Inc. Many other members of the transition team were listed as volunteers; she wasn’t. Instead, she was paid through the “transition entity.”
Emails sent to the transition team’s media contact were returned as undeliverable.
A filing Grisham submitted to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics listed the Arizona House and Trump for America as positions she has held outside of the U.S. government. In the section asking for sources of income exceeding $5,000 a year, Grisham listed the Arizona House and the Trump campaign. She didn’t list the transition team.
And it’s not even clear if Grisham was ever unemployed. She continued speaking for Trump after the election and before being officially named to the transition team on November 30.
On November 20, for example, she was quoted telling the traveling press corps that they couldn’t attend a New Jersey church sermon with the president-elect, at the church’s request.
She received her final paycheck of $9,500 from the campaign on December 2, according to federal campaign finance reports.