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Scandals reveal murky workplace standards in Legislature

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Since news broke of their apparent romance, the fates of Rep. David Cook and lobbyist AnnaMarie Knorr have diverged.

Cook, a Republican from Globe, has continued to serve on committees, to vote on legislation and to testify on bills he has authored, even as the House Ethics Committee probes two separate complaints about his conduct.

Knorr, on the other hand, was placed on administrative leave by her employer, the Western Growers’ Association, pending an investigation into whether her alleged relationship with Cook presented ethical violations.

That investigation commenced almost immediately after dozens of love letters Cook wrote to Knorr surfaced in the media, whereas leadership in the House took no official action until a pair of complaints materialized two weeks after the initial news reports.

David Cook

David Cook

Cook and Knorr have maintained that their relationship is proper, and platonic. Regardless, the fact that one is on leave while the other remains in the public eye highlights the different standards between the Legislature — where lawmakers have balked at adopting a code of conduct — and private sector firms, where experts say written expectations on proper interpersonal relationships are near universal.

“The culture in political environments is one that would never fly in a corporate or professional environment,” said Jonathan Lockwood, a GOP political consultant who has worked in statehouses in Oregon and Colorado. “There’s cozy relationships. There’s long hours. There’s all of these events with alcohol.”

While the House eventually launched an investigation into Cook — both into whether his relationship with Knorr represents a conflict of interest and whether he had helped her get out of paying back taxes — Republicans in the Senate continue to bury allegations that Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita sexually harassed a lobbyist and threatened the woman for speaking out.

Just as Cook and Knorr have faced disparate consequences, the divergent treatment of allegations in each chamber shows the lack of uniform policy governing interpersonal relationships in the Legislature. In one body, the House Ethics Committee’s investigation, if slow to start, is building steam.

And in the other, while Democrats in the Senate have called for an investigation into newly public allegations that Ugenti-Rita and her now-husband pressured a female lobbyist to join them for sex, Republican leaders including Senate President Karen Fann dismissed the allegations as old, already-investigated incidents.

“If anybody has any new complaint, if there’s a victim that says, ‘I have been harmed in some way,’ which is something new since a member was here at the Senate, I will gladly open up an investigation or send it to the Ethics Committee,” said Fann, R-Prescott.

‘WE’RE ALL ADULTS HERE’

Lobbyists straddle a divide between the private and public spheres.

In the corporate world, companies routinely adopt statements of ethics and clear-cut policies on how to handle conflicts of interest, workplace harassment and retaliation. Kyla Latrice, a Tennessee-based consultant who develops those written policies for clients, said having those procedures written down, read and signed by employees protects both companies and employees.

“The company and individuals can be protected, and it also sets a tone of a corporate culture,” Latrice said. “You have to teach them how to behave so people know how to be ethical.”

These policies protect the company from liability and ensure a healthy workplace, and they apply virtually everywhere.

“Every employer in Arizona should have an anti-harassment policy, particularly when it comes to sexual harassment,” said Jill Chasson, an employment lawyer with Coppersmith Brockelman.

But on the other side of the public-private sector divide, the Senate and House both lack codes of conduct, though drafts have been proposed. Both chambers have workplace harassment policies, and Fann said there’s no need to add more standards.

Michelle Ugenti-Rita

Michelle Ugenti-Rita

The chambers adopted sexual harassment policies in the fallout of Ugenti-Rita’s 2017 accusations against then-Rep. Don Shooter. At the time, Ugenti-Rita told The Arizona Republic the policy wouldn’t matter until both chambers adopted uniform policies and procedures for handling harassment.

House rules require the speaker of the House to create a code of conduct for House staff and state that House members must adopt a written code of conduct and harassment policy for themselves. The Senate’s rules lack those requirements.

In 2018, after Shooter’s expulsion, the two chambers created a joint committee to develop a code of conduct. But the Senate didn’t appoint members, and nothing came of the committee’s work.

“We have policies,” Fann said. “We have sexual harassment policies. You know, we’re all adults here.”

Trusting lawmakers to act like adults isn’t enough, said Diane Stegmeier, founder of the Ohio-based nonprofit organization Project WHEN (Workplace Harassment Ends Now). Project WHEN researches workplace harassment and provides resources for companies to prevent it.

“Adults act like children sometime or they act like teenagers sometime,” Stegmeier said. “What we’re finding is being specific creates the culture that you can’t twist around the words and say, ‘I didn’t know that’ or ‘I didn’t think it meant that.’”

And even if the two chambers had adopted codes of conduct, it takes more than a written policy to ensure a healthy organizational culture, Chasson said.

“The best preventative measure is to have a workplace culture that is based on respect and professionalism and treating each other with kindness,” she said. “And it has to be supported and modeled by leadership.”

Moreover, a sexual harassment policy doesn’t cover improper relationships that are ostensibly consensual, as is the case with Cook and Knorr. While conflict of interest policies in corporate workplaces are not as universal as harassment policies, many businesses have policies that govern interpersonal relationships between employees both in and out of the office, Chasson said.

The lobbyist-lawmaker relationship, while not the same as a boss-employee relationship, does present an inherent imbalance of power. In corporate America, it’s perhaps best mirrored by the relationship a salesperson has with a client or vendor.

Conflict of interest policies both ensure potential employees don’t favor one client over another as a result of a personal relationship and that mutual discomfort is avoided if the relationship goes sour.

“Employers have an obligation,” Chasson said.

DIFFERENT SYSTEMS

Thus far, the only forceful Republican condemnation of Ugenti-Rita’s alleged behavior came from former Rep. Adam Kwasman, who filed to challenge her in her Senate primary this year.

“If this were the private sector — if she worked for me, she wouldn’t have lasted a single day [after the scandal broke],” Kwasman said. “She works for us, the voters of LD23. She forgot that she’s an employee, not a superior.”

But this is where the incongruence between corporate and public life is crucial. Ugenti-Rita and Cook are not employees of the Legislature — they’re elected officials who take up temporary residence at the Capitol at the behest of their constituents.

“This system is so much different,” said Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, who is leading the House’s investigation of Cook. “We are independently elected. You are a franchise of your voters, not of the House. We have mechanisms to overcome those elections, [which] are not the same as employment.”

In an ideal corporate environment, there are multiple channels through which potential victims can file complaints, Chasson said. Investigators interview the relevant parties, review and analyze evidence and “follow the facts where they lead you,” she said.

Then they must determine what the company’s liability is, which depends on whether the misbehavior occurred between two peers, a supervisor and subordinate or an employee and someone outside the company.

The Legislature’s process is similar. When Cook was arrested for a DUI in 2018, House leadership quickly removed him from his committee assignments. And the current ethics probe is following a model similar to the one Chasson describes.

But the point remains: Knorr is on leave, while Cook is still at work. And while neither are afforded the same due process that a suspect in a criminal investigation would have, Allen said one of the realities of an ethics investigation in the Legislature is that the subject of a probe remains at work unless it’s in the public’s interest to suspend them. After all, Cook works for the voters, not for House Speaker Rusty Bowers or Chief of Staff Michael Hunter.

STIRRING THE POT

Karen Fann

Karen Fann

A lack of clear and consistent policies between the two chambers also means Cook faces an investigation for an alleged consensual relationship while Ugenti-Rita, who allegedly made nonconsensual advances toward a lobbyist, remains free from scrutiny.

Senate Democrats who want an investigation into Ugenti-Rita say that she clearly violated the Senate’s sexual harassment policy, but they must find new allegations to push the issue.

Part of the lobbyist’s story — that Ugenti-Rita’s husband, Brian Townsend, a former adviser to Gov. Doug Ducey, sent her nude photos of Ugenti-Rita engaged in sexual activity — was included in a 2018 report produced by a team hired by the House of Representatives to investigate alleged harassment by Ugenti-Rita and Shooter.

Other details – including that Ugenti-Rita had the lobbyist do body shots off her, that she invited the lobbyist to her hotel room at a conference and urged her to stay the night and that she accosted the woman in a public restroom to call her a liar after the House investigation – only came out in a sworn deposition the woman provided under subpoena to Shooter’s defense attorneys for a defamation case Ugenti-Rita filed against him.

Although that House investigation did not appear to include those allegations, and although the bathroom incident happened after Ugenti-Rita had been elected to the Senate but before she was sworn in, Fann considers the matter dead.

“To keep stirring the pot on something that is already in litigation and has already been investigated, quite honestly, I’m very saddened that that’s where the media would rather go instead of, ‘Let’s talk about the policy and all the good stuff that’s going on around here,’” she said.

Yellow Sheet Report editor Hank Stephenson contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously stated Senate President Karen Fann voted for the expulsion of former Rep. Don Shooter. Fann was not a member of the House at the time of the vote in February 2018 and did not vote for the expulsion.

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