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Even amid COVID, scandals set the tone at the Legislature

Even amid COVID, scandals set the tone at the Legislature

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Arizona's historic Capitol (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Arizona’s historic Capitol (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The 2020 session was, in some ways, the story of two scandals: one that rocked the Capitol and continued reverberating weeks after the Legislature adjourned, and one that quickly fizzled into nothing more than off-color jokes and innuendo on the campaign trail.

From the outset, the cases of Rep. David Cook and Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita appeared similar. Both stood accused of engaging in inappropriate relationships with lobbyists: Cook in a seemingly consensual affair that raised concerns about conflicts of interest, while Ugenti-Rita is alleged to have sexually harassed a female lobbyist and used her position as a powerful lawmaker to intimidate the woman.

The handling of the two cases, however, couldn’t have been more different.

David Cook
David Cook

Cook’s case was quickly referred to a special House ethics committee, which hired a legal team to conduct a months-long review of the Globe Republican’s conduct, a probe that continued even as the coronavirus sidelined most other legislative business. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, brushed off allegations against Ugenti-Rita as irrelevant to current Senate business because Ugenti-Rita was not a senator at the time of the alleged incidents of harassment. The allegations against her had surfaced in court documents in an ongoing legal battle between the Scottsdale Republican and former Rep. Don Shooter, who was expelled after himself facing allegations of sexual harassment.

The investigation into Cook stems largely from dozens of intimate letters he wrote to agricultural lobbyist AnnaMarie Knorr over a 45-day period in which he refers to “coveting another man’s wife” and his personal struggles with drinking and women. The Yellow Sheet Report, a sister publication of the Arizona Capitol Times, first published contents of those letters in January.

At the time, House Speaker Rusty Bowers hadn’t yet read the letters, though he said he wasn’t happy with the situation. By February 4, Bowers confirmed that the House Ethics Committee had received notarized complaints relating to Cook’s apparent affair with Knorr, and that it would investigate the matter.

One of those complaints went beyond the scope of the alleged affair, accusing Cook of having used his influence to intervene in plans for Pinal County to seize Knorr’s farm, which is in debt.

Bowers appointed Rep. John Allen, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to lead the House Ethics Committee in this probe. Allen brought on outside attorneys from Ballard Spahr, who up until last week engaged in a lengthy investigation, gathering documents and witness testimony that culminated in a 34-page report.

In the process, the committee angered Cook and his attorneys in just about every way possible, and waged protracted battles over document discovery that went largely unresolved. Though Cook eventually sat down for an interview, the probe’s investigators had to prod him to get even a portion of the documents they requested, both through normal channels and through a legislative subpoena, the report says.

The committee also ran afoul of several other Republican lawmakers, who agreed with Cook’s attorneys that the committee was leading a politically motivated witch hunt that exceeded the scope of the lawmaker’s responsibilities and actions while in office.

Some of those same lawmakers have chafed at other committee’s investigations, notably into Rep. Don Shooter, the subject of multiple claims of sexual harassment.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita

But Bowers held firm, albeit quietly, in his support of Allen’s work.

“The thing I have felt most effective is to make sure that you have a process that’s treated equally of every person,” Bowers said. “If there’s a complaint, the complaint will be given serious consideration. If the complaint is not found to have merit, the committee makes that decision, and they have – there have been other complaints which the committee has not chosen to pursue, right? So, I think that there is a method that was adopted and accepted by the membership.”

But some lawmakers say the process isn’t as equitable as Bowers would claim.

“The culture down there at the legislature is that if you get sideways with the speaker, you get punished,” said Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, who has been one of Cook’s fiercest defenders.

Complaints about lawmakers are left up to the House Speaker or Senate President — and the ethics committees they appoint — to handle. And that, Townsend said, leads to investigations and disciplinary actions taken based on how leaders feel about individual lawmakers.

The House fails in not having a standard human resources department, Townsend said. She has wrestled with the House’s way of investigating ethics complaints since she and Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita first reported sexual harassment they experienced to House leadership years ago.

Bowers countered that ultimately, it’s up to that committee to run investigations, not necessarily House leadership, even while the Speaker picks the members of an Ethics Committee.

“The caucus expressed early in my desires to be speaker that they were not fully on board with how other ethics things have happened in the past,” he said. “And I said we will establish that there is an Ethics Committee, just like any committee. The committee has opportunities, powers, authorities, responsibility, but the committee will do its deal here. Not the Speaker.”

In the end, it may not matter much. Cook has until June 19 to provide a formal response to the committee. At that point, it will meet once more to vote on further action – if any. But even if the committee’s members recommend that the Legislature expel Cook, there’s currently no venue to do so.

“The reality is that the session is over, and now they can’t throw him out,” said Barry Aarons, a long-time lobbyist around the Capitol.

Even if the Legislature were to convene in a special session after the August primary, a vote to dismiss Cook would be a tough sell.

“If he wins his primary, which I think he is very capable of doing, it’d be tough to say the voters sent him back [to the Legislature] and now we send him back,” Aarons said. “For anyone who is unhappy with Rep. Cook – and I’m not one of those people – I think then options have kind of been taken off the table.”

In Ugenti-Rita’s case, those options were taken off the table long before the session ended. Shortly after the allegations against her became public, Senate Democrats called on Republicans to launch an investigation, but stopped short of filing a formal ethics complaint.

The woman who accused Ugenti-Rita hadn’t wanted her case made public in the first place, and no one else stepped forward with complaints. Senate President Karen Fann dismissed calls from Democrats to investigate — and questions from reporters about why she wasn’t launching an inquiry — by saying that the issue was being settled in a lawsuit that didn’t involve the Senate.

“We have a lot of extremely important bills that are going to affect a lot of people’s lives, and that should be the focus,” Fann said in February, nearly a week after the allegations against Ugenti-Rita became public. “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.”

It’s very likely that in both cases, voters will be the ultimate judge.

The details of allegations against Ugenti-Rita are well-known in her Scottsdale-based district even if the Senate never truly acknowledged them, said her primary challenger, Scottsdale attorney Alex Kolodin. It was one of the reasons he wanted to run against her, Kolodin said.

“The people of Scottsdale and Fountain Hills, who are tremendously accomplished people, that they would have a representative who did them proud as they deserve – that’s very important,” Kolodin said.

But Sen. Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande, who’s running for one of the seats in Cook’s district now that Rep. T.J. Shope of Coolidge is mounting a Senate run, hasn’t made hay out of the issue. Neal Carter, another challenger in the district’s House race, has gone easy on Cook on the campaign trail. In any event, the scandal hasn’t hurt Cook’s fundraising ability.

The scandal-ridden Legislature – Cook and Ugenti-Rita are only the two most recent lawmakers to get into trouble – isn’t conducive to productivity, said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma.

“It cast a shadow on everyone,” she said. “I’m thinking that maybe that is what hindered the work that the majority was doing, or I should say, not doing – they were focusing on individual members, rather than the greater good.”

Fernandez hopes that the House will adopt a code of conduct that specifically prohibits certain behaviors.

Bowers directed the House Ethics committee to come up with a code of conduct in 2019 in the fallout of the Don Shooter scandal, though he only did so under pressure from Fernandez’s caucus. But while Democrats even drafted a code, lawmakers have never actually adopted one.

“We worked really long and very hard on it, and we presented it to the Ethics Committee and to the Speaker to no avail,” Fernandez said. “That should have been adopted, so we know where we stand, what you have to do to be a member in good standing. And if you’re not there, then you need to move on.”

Before Bowers’ tenure, then-Speaker J.D. Mesnard sought to draft a code for staff, but one never materialized following disagreements over its content with Democrats. Upon Mesnard’s departure for the Senate, it was left up to Bowers, and even though House rules say that the chamber “shall” adopt such a code, in addition to a written harassment policy, no such code was written.

The Senate similarly has no formal code of conduct. In 2018, then-Senate President Steve Yarborough never appointed members to a joint committee that set out to write a code. Appetite for a set of written rules of comportment didn’t grow in the following two years.

Bowers pushed back on the idea that the adoption of a code of ethics that specifically interdicted romantic relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers is the best path forward. Rather, he said, the simple first provision of House Rules – that the chamber may punish members for disorderly behavior – should be enough.

“And if you look in the rule book, if you just read the first page, it says what a member is required to remember about his or her deportment,” he said. “Could it be interpreted differently by different people seated on a committee or different leadership? Yes, it could. But that’s why there’s a rule book.”

Aarons agreed with Bowers that adopting a code of conduct might not help.

“As far as romantic relationships … you can prohibit it, but you have to make some decisions as to where you are going to draw the line,” he said.

Bowers said that a list of specific violations could lead to situations where lawmakers who are acting unethically get off because their cases don’t exactly match the behaviors described in a code of ethics.

“I don’t want to have periods and dashes and crossed ‘T’s’ and dotted ‘I’s’ because then you get a lawyer who says, ‘Oh, but he didn’t do exactly what that says,’” he said. “And this is not a court of law. This is the Legislature.”