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Accuser smeared in wake of lawmaker’s expulsion

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)

Despite having cast a historical vote to expel Yuma Republican Don Shooter on February 1, some lawmakers in the Arizona House of Representatives tried to put one of his victims — a colleague of theirs — on trial.

Shooter was expelled by a vote of 56-3, including his own no vote, making him one of only three lawmakers and the first Republican to be ousted from the state Legislature.

The vote came after an investigation found he had sexually harassed women at the Capitol for years, including Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale.

She was just the first woman to publicly accuse Shooter of harassing her during his time at the Legislature, and investigators later determined several incidents she recounted had violated the House’s sexual harassment policy.

Yet before and after Shooter’s departure, some of her colleagues became fixated on Ugenti-Rita and sought to expose some of her skeletons.

Shooter inflamed suspicion toward her in his final hours at the Legislature through a letter he sent to his colleagues in which he implied Ugenti-Rita was also guilty of sexual harassment. He also filed a notice of claim in which he said his expulsion was the result of a greater scheme against him and Ugenti-Rita was part of it.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard rejected Shooter’s attempts to shift the focus away from his actions and onto others, including himself, but especially Ugenti-Rita.

She may have been the catalyst for others to come forward with their own accounts of his behavior, Mesnard said, but the problem with Shooter was bigger than her.

“There was a slew of woman that came forward, and it wasn’t a small number,” Mesnard said. “It wasn’t an incidental number of accusations. But he’s making it all about Ugenti-Rita.”

Neither Ugenti-Rita nor her attorney Kurt Altman immediately returned requests for comment.

After his expulsion, Shooter’s attorney Kraig Marton filed a notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit against the state, alleging Ugenti-Rita had been a pawn for the Ninth Floor.

He claimed he’d fallen victim to a scheme orchestrated by Mesnard and Gov. Doug Ducey’s Chief of Staff Kirk Adams to prevent him from uncovering “serious issues of malfeasance in state government contracts.”

Mesnard has denied the allegations.

Shooter gathered his allegations and his evidence into a binder he referenced in his final speech on the floor.

“Let the facts speak for themselves,” he said. “There’s booklets in my office if you want to know what prompted this thing.”

He did not apologize for his behavior, but said he “took it (his colleagues’ judgment) like a man.”

And then he dropped his microphone and walked off the floor before the vote was over.

Even before his claims of an underlying plot against him, he had raised doubts in some lawmakers’ minds about Ugenti-Rita’s role in the investigation.

Immediately after she made her first allegations, Shooter issued an apologetic statement, but retracted it and instead attacked his accuser later that same evening.

He blamed the trouble between them on “how she has conducted herself personally, with staff and later with legislation,” including “a very public affair,” adding she was lying.

The affair quickly became the subject of a letter signed by a dozen Republican representatives calling for both Ugenti-Rita and House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, to be removed from their leadership roles.

Whereas Shooter was accused of sexual harassment–and found to have “engaged in a pattern of unwelcome and hostile conduct” –the claims against Ugenti-Rita and Rios were largely limited to alleged affairs they had with House staffers.

In Ugenti-Rita’s case, she was also accused of making “inappropriate sexual comments made and recorded during a hearing,” an accusation first leveled against her by Shooter as he lashed out at her for naming him as one of her harassers.

And in the letter he sent to lawmakers on the morning of the vote, he claimed investigators had sought to cover up or give less weight to the affair and claims that the staffer shared sexually explicit communications of her with other House employees.

Shooter said a young woman with whom the messages were shared met with investigators to describe the “humiliating experiences.”

“Yet, inexplicably, the pattern of outrageous conduct that she described, including comments allegedly made directly to her by her elected boss, as well as being subjected to her boss’ exposed genitalia, were not detailed in the report,” Shooter wrote.

Former House staffer Brian Townsend told investigators he shared “unsolicited, sexually explicit communications” with the intent to “hurt and humiliate” Ugenti-Rita, to whom he was engaged.

Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, voted to expel Shooter but latched onto Townsend’s statements, alleging his actions were potentially “unlawful acts” and demanding further investigation by local law enforcement agencies under Arizona’s revenge porn law.

Shooter and other third parties had told investigators about the messages, adding that Ugenti-Rita may have known about them or even participated in the “unsolicited, unwelcome, and harassing contact.”

Ugenti-Rita “unequivocally denied” that, and investigators deemed her shocked denial credible.

In January, the House released hundreds of previously withheld pages of documents from the investigation. But the documents still omitted information related to the messages Townsend shared.

Both Kern and Rep. Maria Syms, R-Paradise Valley, told the Capitol Times that all the records should be released, even those with explicit material.

“The taxpayers paid for that report. Period. So those are public records and those public records need to be released,” Kern said in March.

What has been released detailed Shooter’s inappropriate behavior toward Ugenti-Rita and eight others in an environment that allowed him to continue.

Ugenti-Rita alone made 11 allegations against him, all of which occurred after — as even Shooter admitted to investigators — she had made it clear she was not interested in his friendship.

CORRECTION: This article previously misidentified Don Shooter’s attorney. He is Kraig Marton. 

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