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Love letters from lawmaker to lobbyist raise ethical questions

A Republican lawmaker sent nearly 100 pages of intimate letters to an agriculture lobbyist, shedding light on an apparent love affair that has put one of them at the center of controversy and the other under formal investigation by her employer. 

Although both deny having a romantic relationship, the letters show the deep affection Rep. David Cook has for AnnaMarie Knorr, a lobbyist with the Western Growers Association, and his intimate familiarity with her personal life, raising the spectre of a potential conflict of interest. 

Rep. David Cook

Rep. David Cook

While it’s natural for Cook, a rancher from Globe, to sponsor and vote for legislation benefiting agricultural interests and the Growers Association, his letters create questions whether he remains objective in his capacity as a state representative, or whether the groups Knorr works for receive preferential treatment from Cook.

In the letters, Cook talked at length both about his affection for Knorr and also about state business.

“I deeply love you, and on many occasions I find myself trying to protect me from being hurt by having these deep feelings for you,” he wrote in one letter.

In another section, he mentions a fundraiser he attended. He speculates that Knorr’s father, powerful cattle industry lobbyist Bas Aja, did not contribute to the group holding the fundraiser “because of you.”

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, told the Arizona Capitol Times that although he was aware of the rumors swirling around Knorr’s and Cook’s apparent affair, he did not have enough information to offer a specific comment. 

He said that he hadn’t read the letters, though he wasn’t happy with the situation. 

“If you ask me if I like it, I don’t like it at all,” he said. 

Bowers said he hasn’t launched any kind of formal inquiry into the matter but will do his own investigation before deciding if any formal action is necessary, noting he has yet to talk to Cook about the allegations. 

“I’m going to investigate it. To come to some opinion, I need to read letters. I need to know – is there a background to this? What’s the situation in its entirety?” he said. 

Cook has not been removed from any of his committee assignments and is still voting on legislation. That’s a stark contrast to how the Western Growers Association has handled matters on its end. 

Dave Puglia, executive vice president of the Western Growers Assn, said in a written statement that his organization is “aware of the allegations of professional misconduct by one of our employees,” and that the organization placed Knorr on administrative leave pending an investigation.

The group said Knorr has denied the allegations.

“Western Growers holds itself and its employees to the highest standards of professional conduct. We are also committed to the fundamental notions of fairness and due process. Therefore, Ms. Knorr has been placed on administrative leave pending our investigation into the matter. We will have no further comment while the investigation is pending,” Puglia said.

Cook has been the prime sponsor of several bills Knorr backed on behalf of her clients, and she contributed $455 to Cook’s campaigns in 2018 and this year.

Cook started writing the signed and handwritten love letters to Knorr after she took time off from work to focus on her health last fall.

Although Cook initially denied knowing anything about the letters, he eventually insisted that his relationship with Knorr is purely platonic. 

“OK, all I can say is my friends, when I’ve needed help, have been there to help me. And I will be there to help my friends in whatever struggle they’re going through,” Cook told Capitol Times’ sister publication, Yellow Sheet Report, which first broke the news of the letters.

AnnaMarie Knorr

AnnaMarie Knorr

Knorr has not returned multiple calls seeking comment, but the Arizona Republic later reported that Knorr said their relationship was not inappropriate and that she and Cook are the subject of a smear campaign by her husband and her father, who she said didn’t want her to end her marriage.

Aja didn’t respond to the Republic’s attempt to get his side of the story, but told the Yellow Sheet Report that’s not what it’s about. 

“We want to limit the exposure to very bad influences in her life. As a father, my primary concern is my daughter and the family, not the state Capitol,” he said in a text message. 

Cook was arrested for drunk driving in December 2018 with a blood alcohol content of nearly twice the legal limit. He pleaded guilty to DUI after prosecutors agreed to drop the extreme DUI charge. As part of that plea deal, Cook attended a court-mandated substance abuse treatment program.

Aja makes several appearances in Cook’s letters to Knorr, including one passage where Cook laments that Aja is trying to keep them apart. 

“Last night I could not stand it anymore and answered your dad’s text. The one where he said not to text, email or call you. I replied ‘What ever you think – you should never have stopped trusting me.’ The truth is, he never did. I was and am just a tool to him – to be used. But that’s OK,” Cook wrote. 

Some letters were adorned with sketches and hearts, even a portion of a crossword puzzle he drew for her. In others, he talked about work, legislation, water policy and the Drought Contingency Plan, interspersed with romantic passages.  

In one section, he references a trip he wanted to take with other lawmakers in a helicopter owned by Salt River Project to see highway traffic as part of his plan to secure funding for the North-South Pinal Corridor, asking Knorr for advice on who else to invite on the ride. 

The House has no formal rules prohibiting relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists. But lobbyists must obey two sets of rules, according to veteran Arizona lobbyist Barry Aarons, the written rules and the unwritten.

On one hand, they have to follow the law, which means there are limits on the exchange of goods, cash or favors between a lobbyist and a legislator. On the other hand, lobbyists are also “governed by unwritten rules of propriety and optics,” he said. 

This means that lobbyists have to be conscious of their relationships with lawmakers so as not to create the perception of improper behavior or a conflict of interest. 

Aarons quoted former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who, when asked to define obscenity, answered: “I know it when I see it.” 

He hesitated to speak directly on the Cook allegations, though he pointed out there is no evidence of either party exchanging sex for favors. 

“Do I have lawmakers I consider friends? Yes,” he said. “Have I written them 100 letters? Of course not.”

Female lobbyists in particular must deal with a perception, however unearned, that they’ll engage in inappropriate relationships with lawmakers, said Amy Love, a longtime Supreme Court lobbyist who now works in communications.

“I always thought it was best not to go to lunch, not to go to drinks,” she said. “Even with the great lengths I went to, there were still rumors that were completely untrue.”

This is the third major, public scandal involving a House Republican in as many years. In 2018, the House voted to expel then-Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, after several women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against him. The next year, Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, resigned after refusing to cooperate with an ethics probe into 1983 charges that he molested two young boys while living in Maryland. 

And while Cook’s 2018 DUI was overshadowed by more salacious stories about Stringer, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez said it also damaged the House’s ability to work. Fernandez, D-Yuma, said she considers Cook’s behavior “sophomoric,” but that whether he should resign over it is a decision he’ll have to make. 

“Since I’ve been here, it was Shooter and Stringer, and then Cook and now Cook again. I gotta tell you, and I’m not acting like Pollyanna because I am not Pollyanna, this puts a real dark cloud over the session already,” said Fernandez. “We were all very excited about coming back.”

Julia Shumway and Dillon Rosenblatt contributed to the reporting of this story.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from its original form to include more information as well as quotes from House Speaker Rusty Bowers, Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, lobbyist Barry Aarons and former lobbyist Amy Love. 

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