Seven women at the Arizona Capitol, including three legislators, say a prominent Republican state lawmaker has harassed them.
The allegations against 65-year-old Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, range from sexually charged comments to unwanted touching.
The women decided to publicly discuss the incidents after reporting from various news outlets, led by The New York Times and New Yorker, broke open sexual harassment claims from numerous women against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Since then, women in various industries have gone public with stories about men in their businesses who have harassed them.
The topic of harassment at the Arizona Capitol came to the forefront on Oct. 20 after Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, said she had been sexually harassed at the statehouse for years since taking office in 2011. Ugenti-Rita made her accusation more specific on Tuesday, when she told a local TV station one of the men who harassed her was Shooter.
Several women have since come forward with stories of unwanted comments and touching from Shooter.
One instance occurred off of Capitol grounds in 2013, said Democratic lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez.
Rodriguez said she was trying to lobby then-Sen. Shooter, who was the chair of the Arizona Senate Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful positions in the chamber, on a budget issue in his office at the Capitol. He wasn’t listening, which she blamed on her newness as a lobbyist. He suggested they meet that evening at a restaurant, Windsor, in Phoenix.
Rodriguez brought another female lobbyist, who she declined to name, with her. After about two hours attempting to talk about the budget issue, the other lobbyist had to leave, leaving Rodriguez and Shooter together. Rodriguez said she decided to stay to continue lobbying him.
Shortly after the other lobbyist left, Shooter put his hand on Rodriguez’s knee, she said. She moved away from him and left as soon as she could after that, she said, adding that she felt paralyzed and overwhelmed.
Rodriguez hasn’t met with him in the two years since then, which she said makes it more difficult to work as a lobbyist given his prominent role in the budget process. Shooter now is the chair of the House appropriations committee.
“I don’t feel comfortable meeting with him. Every time I see him, I think about that moment. I still to this day feel incredibly ashamed about it,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez hasn’t publicly told the story before and and she said she still feels leery about discussing it, though she now owns her own lobbying firm. It’s a tough spot for lobbyists, who need to maintain relationships with lawmakers in order to advance their clients’ agendas, she said.
“It’s entirely possible there’s a chance for retribution, and I don’t know what to do about it,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez pointed to comments made by House Speaker J.D. Mesnard last week, after Ugenti-Rita publicly said she had been harassed at the Capitol. Mesnard noted that it’s especially hard for lobbyists to seek recourse for inappropriate treatment at the Capitol, saying one of their only options is to make a public statement.
“I agree. I don’t know if, at the end of this, my stories and the other women’s stories that come out are going to do anything. I don’t know if next session he’s still going to be chairman of the appropriations committee. That’s out of my control,” Rodriguez said.
In a statement sent through attorney Melissa Ho, Shooter would not comment on the allegations by Ugenti-Rita nor the women who spoke to the Arizona Capitol Times for this story, saying only that he had requested an investigation by the House.
Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, confirmed to KTVK (Channel 3) political reporter Dennis Welch on Nov. 7 that Shooter was one of the men who harassed her at the Capitol. She said he asked about her chest in her office once and came uninvited to her room with beer at a work conference, where she didn’t answer the door.
Ugenti-Rita also detailed a June 2011 encounter where he told her he was in love with her and said he wanted to have a relationship. She wrote a memo about that incident, and said she told Republican leadership, but nothing was done.
“He tells me that he loves me and asks if there’s an opportunity for us to be together in the future,” she read to KTVK from the June 2011 memo. “Just then, he bursts out, ‘I have been married for 32 years and have never done anything.’”
Ugenti-Rita said she’s worried about retaliation now that she’s named Shooter.
Initially, according to the Nov. 7 KTVK report, Shooter issued a written statement and said he “apparently said things that were insensitive and not taken well.”
However, later on Nov. 7, he retracted that statement, stating he had previously been told only that Ugenti-Rita was upset by comments he made but wasn’t given details.
“I’ve been happily married for 41 years, I’ve never cheated on my wife and there isn’t a woman on this planet I would leave my wife for,” he wrote.
Shooter went on to blame the trouble between him and Ugenti-Rita on “how she has conducted herself personally, with staff and later with legislation,” including “a very public affair.”
“Ms. Ugenti is lying about me, and I have asked Speaker Mesnard to have the entire matter investigated by the House Ethics Committee/Counsel,” he said. “At the conclusion of their work, I will consider taking further legal action in this matter.”
Ugenti-Rita has called attention to the lack of policies and procedures to investigate harassment among the elected members of the legislature, which resulted in a new policy.
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, recalled her first interaction with Shooter. During the first week of the legislative session this year, another representative introduced Shooter to her.
Salman said Shooter told her: “You’ll be a nice view to look at.”
She found the comment on her appearance unprofessional, she said.
Another lawmaker, Democrat Rep. Wenona Benally of Window Rock, said she heard Shooter use “suggestive and sexually inappropriate language” during the 2017 legislative session. While bills were being debated on the House floor, Benally was in the member’s lounge when Shooter sat across from her. Another male colleague joined him.
“They engaged in a joking but graphic conversation in front of me in which Rep. Shooter repeatedly referred to his male genitalia as a ‘gun.’ The conversation made me extremely uncomfortable,” Benally said in a statement.
She reported the incident to Democratic leadership, who reported it to House Speaker J.D. Mesnard.
In another instance, Shooter bear-hugged a 19-year-old Capitol Times intern at a company awards event earlier this year.
The intern, Kendra Penningroth, said Shooter, who she had never met, came up to her at the Best of the Capitol event in June and wrapped her in a long hug, then ran his hands down her back.
Shooter held onto her as he told another intern, who had a camera, not to take any photos of him, Penningroth said.
“It wasn’t like a colleague, side hug. It was like a bear hug. He pushed my face into his chest, which was weird, and then he continued to talk to me about how private his life is and how I know that he doesn’t like when people take pictures of him. But I had never met him before. Ever,” she said.
Another woman had a similar experience with Shooter. At a League of Arizona Cities and Towns conference in Tucson in 2015, the woman, a city employee who did not want her name or city identified, was at an after-hours event when Shooter arrived.
She said she greeted him and he wrapped his arms around her, then slid his hands down and grabbed her buttocks. She pulled away and pushed him back, she said. She walked away and was talking to coworkers, but Shooter came up behind her and began waving his hands and mimicking what she was saying.
She looked at him and told him to stop being creepy. He responded that he didn’t know if he could, she said.
She said she doesn’t think he remembers her or the incident because she saw him a year later and he came up to her and attempted to hug her again. She told him no, saying that the hugs with him never end well, she said.
Another woman who was at the conference confirmed to the Capitol Times that the city employee told her the same story immediately after it happened.
In another incident, at an education event at the Phoenix Public Market during the 2017 legislative session, Shooter made inappropriate sexual comments to two female lobbyists, who did not want to be named. A male lobbyist who witnessed the interaction, Geoff Esposito, recounted what happened, and one of the female lobbyists confirmed the account.
The lobbyists did not want to detail on the record exactly what was said for fear of retribution, but said the comments were extreme and sexual in nature.
Esposito, then a lobbyist at the statehouse, said he was keeping an eye on the conversation Shooter was having with the young female lobbyists. Esposito eventually received text messages from one of the lobbyists saying “SOS,” indicating that he should intervene.
He walked up to Shooter to try to interrupt, but Shooter physically pushed Esposito out of the way and said: “‘I’m working on something here, buddy,’” Esposito said. The female lobbyist confirmed Esposito’s account.
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said the House will be investigating all claims of harassment as they become aware of them.
“Anything that becomes public or that is personally requested to investigate, either way, that’s what I’m going to pursue. … We are going to be very thorough,” Mesnard said.
The investigation will be conducted by a bipartisan group, and could include outside attorneys and specialists, if needed, he said. He added that the House will investigate any claims that come up, regardless of who the claims are against.
As to whether Shooter will remain as appropriations chair, Mesnard said he didn’t want to speculate, instead preferring to take the investigative process one step at a time.
The stories about Shooter and other members that Mesnard has heard in recent weeks are concerning, and he’s not trying to minimize the claims any women have made, but he wants to thoroughly investigate the issues through the proper channels, he said.
“We have a cultural problem we have to fix, and this is even bigger than Mr. Shooter,” he said.