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Alleged revenge-porn violation against former House staffer depends on time crime was committed

Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, stands at her desk on the floor of the Arizona House of Representatives, before a vote to expel Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma. Ugenti-Rita’s allegations of sexual harassment by Shooter led a host of women and one man to air similar allegations against him. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, stands at her desk on the floor of the Arizona House of Representatives, before a vote to expel Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma. Ugenti-Rita’s allegations of sexual harassment by Shooter led a host of women and one man to air similar allegations against him. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Rep. Anthony Kern wants prosecutors to determine if a former legislative staffer violated Arizona law by sharing sexually explicit messages about Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita.

But whether the law was potentially violated depends on when the messages were sent.

Brian Townsend, a former House staffer who last worked as policy director in 2015, told attorneys investigating sexual harassment in the chamber that he shared “unsolicited, sexually explicit communications” in a manner Townsend said was intended to “hurt and humiliate” Ugenti-Rita, to whom he is now engaged.

Rep. Anthony Kern (R-Glendale)

Rep. Anthony Kern (R-Glendale)

Kern, R-Glendale, drew attention to Townsend’s testimony while voting to expel Rep. Don Shooter, a Yuma Republican who’s pattern of sexually harassing behavior was the focus of the investigation.

The report concluded that “credible evidence supports the finding that Mr. Townsend acted alone and without a member of this body’s knowledge.”

“I will be drafting a letter to the Attorney General and the Maricopa County Attorney in response to an alleged unwelcome, harassing and offensive communication by a Mr. Brian Townsend,” Kern said.

He later added that Townsend’s actions were potentially “unlawful acts, and I want those thoroughly investigated.”

A House spokesman said Kern is drafting the letters and expects they’ll be sent on Monday.

It’s a crime to share nude photos of another person without their consent if the intent is to harm, harass or intimidate that person.

But the law declaring that crime a felony was not adopted until 2016. That year, the Legislature passed HB 2001, sponsored by House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, with an emergency clause, meaning the law went into effect the moment Gov. Doug Ducey signed the bill on March 11, 2016.

Ryan Anderson, a spokesman for Attorney General Mark Brnovich, said the date the messages were sent and the date the law took effect would be relevant to any law enforcement agency who may follow up on Kern’s request.

“We are aware of the allegations in the investigative report concerning the electronic transmission of sexually explicit communications reportedly intended to hurt and humiliate a state lawmaker,” Anderson wrote in an email. “Arizona law is clearly designed to protect victims who have a right to expect privacy. We can’t comment further.”

Also at question is whether a prosecutor would pursue charges against Townsend without the consent of Ugenti-Rita.

It’s too early to determine if prosecutors have something to act on, said Amanda Jacinto, a spokeswoman for Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. A law enforcement agency with jurisdiction — perhaps the Department of Public Safety — would first have to investigate the allegations.
As for investigators, a victim’s participation is helpful, but not necessary.

“As long a you’re able to establish a crime did happen, you don’t need a victim to bring the crime forward to authorities,” Jacinto said.

Attorneys hired for the House investigation were told by multiple third parties, and Shooter, about the explicit messages, and that Ugenti-Rita may have known about them or perhaps participated in sharing the messages. There was no doubt that the “unsolicited, unwelcome, and harassing contact” occurred, according to the report, so it was up to investigators to determine whether Ugenti-Rita was involved.

Ugenti-Rita “unequivocally denied” knowledge of the messages, and based in part on her “genuine surprise and shock,” investigators found her denial credible.

The investigators had previously criticized Townsend as an uncredible witness in their investigation, but found his response when confronted with the allegations consistent and credible. Townsend took “complete ownership for the alleged conduct,” and broke down trembling and crying in front of investigators several times.

“Mr. Townsend immediately became emotional, expressing that he knew the discovery of his actions would be the ‘death knell’ in his career and relationship with Ms. Ugenti-Rita,” investigators wrote.

“The independent, credible evidence supports only a finding that Mr. Townsend acted alone and without Ms. Ugenti-Rita’s knowledge or participation when committing the egregious and potentially unlawful acts at issue,” investigators later added.

2 comments

  1. The Arizona Republic is still withholding Ugenti’s name as the victim.

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