Ethics committee hears testimony from Harris regarding complaint; no ruling made

Ethics committee hears testimony from Harris regarding complaint; no ruling made

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(From left): Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City; Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff; Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale; Rep. Liz Harris, R-Chandler; and Rep. Rachel Jones, R-Tucson, listen to a speaker during a joint legislative elections committee hearing on Feb. 23. A ruling of an ethics complaint against Harris, who is accused of engaging in disorderly conduct, will be determined later after a House panel heard nearly two hours of testimony on March 30 on the matter. (Photo by Jakob Thorington/Arizona Capitol Times)

A ruling of an ethics complaint against a freshman Republican representative accused of engaging in disorderly conduct will be determined later after a House panel heard nearly two hours of testimony Thursday on the matter.

Rep. Liz Harris, R-Chandler, invited a speaker to testify during a Feb. 23 legislative joint elections committee hearing. The speaker accused Gov. Katie Hobbs and Speaker of the House Ben Toma, R-Peoria, of taking bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel, which resulted in election rigging. Several others were also accused of various crimes, including government officials in the city of Mesa and the entire Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was implicated.

Ethics Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, said the committee will take the complaint into advisement after the committee debriefed in executive session.

“As a House member, Representative Harris is entitled to due process, and today’s meeting of the Committee satisfied that constitutional guarantee. For now, the Committee has adjourned to allow the members to fully review the evidence and deliberate,” Chaplik said in a statement shortly after the hearing.

Rep. Stephanie Stahl-Hamilton, D-Tucson, filed the complaint on March 6 against Harris. She said in her complaint that Harris not only allowed the impugning of legislators, a violation of House rules, but she also made the Arizona Legislature “a national joke.”

Stahl-Hamilton’s complaint notes Harris personally invited the speaker who made the defamatory claims, Jacqueline Breger representing suspended attorney John Thaler. Harris has confirmed she invited Breger.

“I watched video of the joint committee testimony in shock. I simply cannot understand how Representative Harris could have concluded that it would be appropriate to invite Ms. Breger to testify and to spread such blatant falsehoods,” Stahl-Hamilton wrote in the complaint.

Breger didn’t provide any supporting evidence for any of her claims on Feb. 23, and a federal judge previously dismissed the same claims from Thaler as a “delusional and fantastical narrative.” Both Toma and Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said they were not aware of Breger’s testimony before the hearing. Petersen said in a statement he wouldn’t have allowed it had he or other Republican Senate leaders known about it before the hearing.

The complaint also alleged Harris violated state defamation laws, but Chaplik said the ethics hearing would only address Harris’ potential violation of a House rule saying members will not engage in disorderly behavior.

“This hearing is not a court proceeding and only a court can make that kind of determination on a defamation lawsuit,” Chaplik said.

The main question ethics members considered was if Harris knew about Breger’s testimony before the elections hearing. Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, went through screenshots of a text exchange between Harris, Breger and Thaler that was submitted to the committee, and extensively questioned Harris about the text messages.

According to the screenshots, Breger communicated she and Thaler were trying to think of a title for her presentation that wouldn’t “raise a red flag,” and the three proceeded to keep Thaler’s name out of the presentation title. Harris also informed Breger a paper handout of her presentation would avoid getting screened by Toma, who must approve any electronically formatted presentation.

Speaking in front of a packed committee room mostly full of people who expressed support for Harris, she said she was expecting a three or four-page document and suggested the idea because the deadline to submit materials prior to the elections hearing date was fast approaching. She said she was shocked when Breger gave committee members an 81-page document outlining a complex deed scheme that listed names of elected officials who were allegedly participating.

“I had never seen that list before in my life,” Harris said. “I was extremely upset that Speaker of the House Toma was on page 70,” she continued.

Harris also said she specifically told Breger not to impugn any legislator because it’s a violation of House rules and not to impugn any religious institution. She admitted that she knew about the deed scheme but didn’t think it would be part of Breger’s presentation.

Rep. Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, asked why Harris specifically told Breger not to impugn any religious institutions. According to the text exchange, they discussed a news article with the headline “The Mormon Church Hid $32 Billion in Assets, According to a New Government Investigation,” which several news outlets reported on Feb. 21.

“I don’t understand how the church would have been on the table, but at the same time, it’s something that came out and it’s in the text messages … So that is the only thing that I was aware of and I didn’t know if it related to John Thaler’s claims or not,” Harris responded.

Grantham asked Harris about a statement from former Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Wright, who said Harris had spoken with her about Breger’s claims in January. Upon receiving this information from Harris, Wright said she urged Harris to take any such claims to law enforcement.

“A public hearing is not an appropriate venue to investigate complex schemes or vet serious allegations of fraud,” Wright said in her statement.

Wright headed the Election Integrity Unit of the office under previous Attorney General Mark Brnovich and said Thaler lied about presenting the evidence of his claims to Brnovich.

Harris said she felt Wright partially misrepresented their conversation and noted two others were present. She also said she didn’t remember Wright telling her to take any claims to law enforcement. She didn’t directly answer Grantham when he asked Harris if Wright lied about the conversation but said she told the group about a book Thaler is planning to publish related to the deed scheme.

According to Harris, she first contacted Breger on Feb. 18 because she needed to find a substitute speaker for the Feb. 23 elections hearing. She knew about Breger and Thaler because she got a press release from them about his book in November and contacted Breger because the book was related to allegations of election fraud in Arizona.

“I was led to believe (Breger and Thaler) had information on election issues,” Harris said.

Harris’ main defense was that her behavior didn’t meet federal and state definitions of disorderly conduct. The act is defined as intending to cause public alarm, nuisance, jeopardy or violence, or knowingly or recklessly creating a risk thereof. She gave an extreme DUI as an example of disorderly behavior and said a member would have to do something of that level to satisfy the definition.

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Rep. Liz Harris, R-Chandler (Photo courtesy of Rep. Liz Harris, R-Chandler via Facebook)

Harris further defended Breger’s testimony and said she allowed testimony from anyone that had information regarding Arizona’s elections; and that it wasn’t her duty to endorse or negate their claims. She said she didn’t believe Breger’s testimony alleged any criminal activity from elected officials.

In her written response to the Ethics committee submitted March 17, Harris specified Breger’s claims weren’t her testimony.

While House and Senate Republican leaders have called Breger’s testimony inappropriate for the Legislature to hear, Harris said it is the Legislature’s duty to allow people to exercise their rights to free speech and to petition the government. This was another one of her main points of defense.

“If the people see issues that need strengthening with laws to block the danger of mal-administered elections and wish to freely inform the people and instruct the legislature, the only body empowered to investigate and write appropriate laws, they are free to approach their servants in the legislative body,” Harris wrote in her official response to the complaint.

Stahl-Hamilton’s complaint also said Harris tried to avoid responsibility for inviting Breger because she made a “silence” gesture to Breger after Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, asked Breger who invited her to speak before the joint elections committee. Harris said she made the gesture because she was afraid the Sinaloa Cartel would attack her, and a later text message Harris sent to Breger and Thaler that said “I left there (the elections hearing) today with the thought that I would never go back” was her referring to her fear of Cartel retaliation.

The following two messages Harris sent to Breger read, “You were brave. I knew they would shut it down” and “Took them longer than I thought.”

“It looks like from a plain reading of these text messages in exhibit five that it may be the case that your prior knowledge of what wound up being the content of Ms. Breger’s testimony was greater than your answers have indicated,” Rep. Christopher Mathis, D-Tucson, said to Harris during the ethics hearing.

In an attempt to censure Harris on the House floor the same day Stahl-Hamilton filed her complaint, she said Harris’ actions have had negative consequences for other legislators, Stahl-Hamilton said. Since the hearing, legislators have received hundreds of mass emails from a group calling itself “We, the People” threating retribution if the Legislature takes action against Harris. She also said Breger’s testimony has spread across right-wing media outlets, which has amplified lies and conspiracy to be taken as fact by thousands of people.

“These lies must end now. The House should never be quiet in the face of defamatory statements, especially when they are invited by a member to present those lies in our own hearing rooms,” Stahl-Hamilton wrote in her complaint.