Eight male GOP state representatives have joined four of their female colleagues in calling for Reps. Michelle Ugenti-Rita and Rebecca Rios to be removed from their leadership roles during an investigation of their alleged inappropriate relationships with Capitol staffers.
The letter, first signed by Republican Reps. Regina Cobb, Jill Norgaard, Becky Nutt and Maria Syms, was originally sent to Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, and every member of the House on Friday.
Mesnard has the authority to strip Ugenti-Rita of her chairmanship on the House Ways and Means Committee. The speaker removed Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, as chair of the Appropriations Committee after nine women, including Ugenti-Rita, accused him of sexual harassment.
It would take a vote of the Democratic Caucus to remove Rios, D-Phoenix, as their leader. Mesnard told the Arizona Capitol Times on Friday he would take the request “under advisement.”
Asked if he felt pressure to act on the lawmakers’ requests now that more representatives had signed the letter, Mesnard told the Capitol Times today that his position remained unchanged.
“I’m going to make the best decision that I think is the fairest decision,” he said.
Republican Reps. Rusty Bowers, Anthony Kern, Darin Mitchell, Kevin Payne, Drew John, Mark Finchem, Noel Campbell and Travis Grantham signed the letter on Monday asking for Ugenti-Rita to be removed from her leadership role and for Rios, D-Phoenix, to be removed as the minority leader of the House Democratic Caucus.
Since Shooter was stripped of a leadership role pending the House’s investigation, it would only be right for the same to be done to Ugenti-Rita and Rios to “maintain equal treatment, consistency, and the integrity of the House policy,” Cobb, Norgaard, Nutt and Syms wrote in their letter.
Syms, a Paradise Valley Republican, told the Capitol Times failing to remove Ugenti-Rita and Rios from their leadership positions undermines the integrity of the investigation.
“If we’re going to remove one from leadership we have to remove all from leadership pending the investigation,” she said. “And I hope, and I’m encouraged, that House leadership will fully vet all of these claims and we will root out any sexual harassment that is found.”
Norgaard, who represents Phoenix’s Legislative District 18, said regardless of gender or political party, “nobody should be exempt from the rules.”
“If politicians are going to behave at a substandard level, then I think they need a time out,” Norgaard said.
Unlike Shooter, who’s been accused of sexual harassment, claims of wrongdoing against Ugenti-Rita and Rios pertain to alleged affairs with House staffers, and in Ugenti-Rita’s case, “inappropriate sexual comments made and recorded during a hearing,” the letter states. Those accusations were made by Shooter, who lashed out after Ugenti-Rita publicly named him as one of the men she claims have sexually harassed her while she’s served at the Legislature.
Rep. Ray Martinez, D-Phoenix, accused Rios in an ethics complaint of having an “inappropriate relationship” with a House staffer. His complaint stemmed from a political tussle with Rios over political endorsements. The four GOP representatives asked in their letter for the Democratic Caucus to “take immediate action” to remove Rios as minority leader.
“House Representatives serve the public and should not abuse their position by exerting power and influence over others, especially through sexual misconduct,” Cobb, Norgaard, Nutt and Syms wrote. “Sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual relations with House staffers should not be tolerated under any circumstance.”
Assistant Minority Leader Rep. Randall Friese said the move is politically driven.
“Beyond politics I do not understand why Rep. Rios was included in this letter,” he said. “The Speaker does not have authority over the status of our caucus leadership. From what we understand, the ethics investigation is moving quickly and we hope for a swift resolution.”
Rios’ lawyer, Larry Wulkan, said the letter aimed to take the spotlight off Shooter.
“(F)our female Republican members have decided to divert attention away from the sexual harassment allegations against their Republican colleague,” he said. “Allegations against Representative Rios are based on rumor, speculation and political motivations.”
Kurt Altman, who is representing Ugenti-Rita in the investigation, declined to comment on the representatives’ request, but added he was “confident the speaker will do the right thing.”
Other representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.