The five-month House Ethics Committee investigation into Rep. David Cook followed a long, winding path through a muck of innuendo and half-truth, only to arrive at a determination that never was very far off.
In doing so, the committee alienated or at least annoyed diverse swaths of the Legislature. Complaints about the process – and the final result, an ambiguous dismissal of the complaints against Cook – came from Democrat and Republican, Cook critic and defender alike. Taken together, they represent a desire to create more clarity and consistency in the functioning of the committee, now on its third major probe in as many years.
On one end, Cook’s Republican defenders question why the committee needed so much time to arrive at what they believe was essentially a foregone conclusion: regardless of whether Cook had an affair with AnnaMarie Knorr, a former lobbyist for the Western Growers Association, it’s doubtful that the affair significantly influenced Cook’s voting record, as he was already a staunch ally of the agriculture industry.
“Why did it take how many months and how much money to know that?” said Rep. Kelly Townsend, a Mesa Republican and staunch critic of this most recent ethics probe.
Dozens of love letters indeed seemed enough to convince the committee members and investigators that Cook, a Republican rancher from Globe, led a deeply personal – if not romantic – relationship with Knorr. And there was evidence that Cook at least knew about plans in Pinal County to seize Knorr’s liened property, and may have reached out to County Sheriff Mark Lamb and others to inquire about seizure policies. And Cook indeed ran legislation that would benefit agricultural taxpayers in Knorr’s position.
But the adjacent charges were all murky, and ultimately, Rep. John Allen, a Scottsdale Republican who led the committee’s investigation, decided not to pursue action against Cook, reasoning that none of the evidence investigators gathered amounted to a violation of House rules.
“Anyone could tell them that the day the complaint was levied,” said Townsend, who has filed a records request for the committee’s spending. “If we’re going to have an annual tradition of seeing if we can dig up something, if we’re gonna have ethics complaints on members, I want to know how much it’s going to cost. I think it’s something the taxpayer needs to know.”
Townsend’s complaints are similar to those of Cook’s attorneys, who regularly aired their frustrations with the House – with which Cook’s team waged protracted battles over the probe’s scope, document production and subpoena requests.
Carmen Chenal Horne, one of Cook’s attorneys, said the Ethics Committee should have guidelines for the process.
“They have no process for an investigation. It’s whatever they want to do,” Chenal Horne said.
The House’s outside legal team, led by Ballard Spahr attorney Mark Kokanovich, exchanged frequent testy letters with Cook and Chenal Horne, badgering them to comply with overdue document requests and eventually a legislative subpoena. Chenal Horne, meanwhile, grew increasingly frustrated with the House’s reticence to respond to a public records request for the contents of the committee’s investigative file.
Adding to this grievance was the fact that Allen showed no compunction about expanding the investigation beyond the four corners of the formal complaints against Cook, assuming evidence led investigators in that direction. This meant that the final investigative report against Cook contained frequent allusions to his drinking and comportment with Capitol denizens other than Knorr.
There’s no reason why this probe can’t lead to the creation of a subcommittee to put guardrails on the committee moving forward, Chenal Horne said.
“They’re not Hitler. It’s not a totalitarian Legislature where they can do whatever they want,” she added.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers was intentional about not involving himself in the investigation, granting Allen broad discretion to lead the probe as he pleased. It’s under this discretion that Allen decided not to pursue action against Cook, despite writing him a scathing letter in which he all-but conceded that the allegation is true.
This was an issue for the Ethics Committee’s two Democrats, Reps. Kirsten Engel and Domingo Degrazia, both attorneys from Tucson.
“We left that hearing in June with the expectation that the next step would be the committee coming back together, deciding whether or not … to provide an evidentiary hearing,” Engel said. “That was the bare minimum of what we were expecting to be the next step.”
Yet, despite Allen’s report, which among other things pointed to Cook’s possibly illegal failure to comply with a legislative subpoena, the probe will not move forward.
“I did what any chairman would do; evaluate the facts that are in front of me and decide if we will hear it in the whole committee,” Allen said.
Engel said the disparity between evidence and conclusion demonstrates that “we need some actual standards to govern our ethics investigations,” not to mention the creation of a formal code of conduct, something that the House Democrats lobbied for. She said that even so, the lack of a code that specifically interdicts romantic relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers is no excuse for the investigation to fizzle out, nor is the lack of a session in which lawmakers could vote on the committee’s recommendation.
“This investigation could and should have gone forward even with what bare bones standards and processes we have in place,” Engel said.
Allen’s decision came as no surprise to Rep. T.J. Shope, who chaired the House Ethics Committee during its investigations into former Rep. David Stringer, who resigned, and Rep. Don Shooter, who the chamber expelled after multiple women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment.
“I didn’t know that any of that [Cook] stuff rose to the level of expulsion,” Shope said.
Moreover, he said, pursuing expulsion could be a foolhardy venture without a guaranteed, bipartisan 40-vote coalition willing to pull the trigger. The upcoming August primary, in which voters could very well decide to support Cook, makes that calculus even trickier, Shope said.
Still, he added, there are lessons to take from this process – for example, the issue of the committee’s subpoena power. In his letter last week, Allen says clearly that Cook failed to comply with a legislative subpoena as required by state law. Allen chose not to pursue the alleged infraction.
“Whether this conduct alone amounts to disorderly conduct is, at best, a close call,” he wrote. “And close calls probably do not merit punishment by the committee or the House.”
Shope said Allen’s disinterest in pursuing this charge leaves an open question: How much power do those legislative subpoenas actually have. Are they legally binding or simply political tools?
Shope was willing to take Stringer to court when he declined to comply with a subpoena, but ultimately the court never got to decide the degree to which the subjects of ethics complaints must comply with legislative subpoenas.
If the Legislature can’t flesh out the legal and constitutional ramifications of its rules, a string of these debacles could ensue. Eventually, Shope warned, those under investigation from the committee could decide altogether that they have no obligation to comply.
“At some point, we have to determine whether or not that subpoena is absolute,” Shope said. “I believe it is. That’s why I was prepared to go to court.”