House begins probes into sexual harassment claims against Rep. Shooter

Ben Giles//November 9, 2017

House begins probes into sexual harassment claims against Rep. Shooter

Ben Giles//November 9, 2017

Yuma Republican Sen. Don Shooter explains that one of his bills that went into effect July 20 — which prohibits requiring businesses to negotiate with union organizations in city contracts — is not “anti-union,” but is “pro-freedom.” (File Photo)
Rep. Don Shooter (R-Yuma) (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

“Multiple investigations” are underway at the Arizona House as Speaker J.D. Mesnard and staff members respond to a growing list of sexual harassment accusations lodged against GOP Rep. Don Shooter.

A bipartisan group of House staffers will conduct the investigations. Their interviews with individuals involved in the complaints against Shooter, and the Yuma Republican’s own accusations against a colleague, could begin as early as next week. Mesnard said staff is currently scheduling those interviews.

The investigations were spurred by media reports about Shooter, who has for years chaired budget committees in the House, and in the Senate where he served from 2011 to 2015.

Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, was the first to publicly accuse Shooter of sexual harassment, allegations Shooter vehemently denied. Since then, two other lawmakers have come forward with their own claims about Shooter, as have other women.

Mesnard said House staff would look at each allegation individually. Any allegation against a lawmaker will be investigated, including accusations made by lobbyists and others, he said.

“Anything that I become aware of, either because someone tells me, which is not what’s happening, or because I find out in the media, which is what’s happening, we’ll do an investigation,” Mesnard said. That may include allegations made by women in an Arizona Capitol Times report posted on November 8.

For example, Democratic lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez, who alleged Shooter inappropriately touched her, confirmed she’s been contacted by House staff to schedule an interview.

“Anyone who has an accusation, we’ll investigate, whether they’re a legislator or somebody else bringing something – anything that’s against a legislator,” he said. “We’ll treat them all separately unless they have to do with the same kind of thing.”

The House would follow the path set forward in the draft sexual harassment policy Mesnard issued last week in response to Ugenti-Rita’s initial claims on October 20 about being a victim of sexual harassment at the Capitol. Though the policy is new in form, it does incorporate some internal guidelines for dealing with reports of harassment, including steps for investigating those allegations.

While that step-by-step process is “malleable” to fit the needs of individual investigations, according to the policy, it does detail a few steps that should be considered, the first of which is appointing an investigative team.

That bipartisan team consists of Tim Fleming, House rules attorney; Jim Drake, chief clerk; Josh Kredit, general counsel for the GOP majority; Christine Marsh, associate general counsel for the GOP; Rhonda Barnes, general counsel for House Democrats; Amilyn Pierce, deputy chief of staff for the GOP; and Cynthia Aragon, House Democrats’ chief of staff.

Though some of the allegations against Shooter date back to his time in the state Senate, Senate GOP Spokesman Mike Philipsen said the Senate has no immediate plans to conduct its own investigation. With Shooter now in the House, that chamber has jurisdiction – the Senate would have no ability to sanction a representative, he said.

Senate staff said they’ll cooperate with the House investigation as needed.

Depending on the investigations’ findings, there are a number of methods state legislators can take to reprimand a fellow lawmaker. House rules detail the chamber’s ability to censure representatives who have breached House rules, and per the Arizona Constitution, each chamber can, by a two-thirds vote, choose to expel a legislator.

Mesnard left open the possibility of using any number of punitive options.

“I think sexual harassment can mean a lot of different things. Are there certain situations that would warrant severe penalties? That’s possible,” Mesnard said. “It’s a big continuum of what constitutes sexual harassment and what evidence is in play.”