GOP members reject housing department nominee due to claims of plagiarism

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Joan Serviss, who is Gov. Katie Hobbs' pick to lead the state housing department, answers questions during the Senate director nominations committee meeting on Sept. 14, 2023. Republicans on the committee outvoted Democrats to reject Serviss for the position. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Legislature via Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

GOP members reject housing department nominee due to claims of plagiarism

A Senate panel voted Thursday to reject the governor’s pick to lead the state housing department – largely due to accusations that she is a serial plagiarist. 

Republicans on the Senate director nominations committee outvoted Democrats on party lines to reject prospective Arizona Department of Housing Director Joan Serviss, citing several letters she signed onto that used language from other entities, but lacked attributions. 

Serviss is serving as the interim director of ADOH but needs to be confirmed by the full Senate to keep her role. She has been in her position since Jan. 30, and can’t be confirmed until the legislature is in session again next year. 

Thursday’s hearing began cordially with Serviss getting a seemingly positive reception from committee members, but things took a nosedive about two hours in when Republican lawmakers started questioning Serviss about letters she wrote in her former role as director of Arizona Housing Coalition. 

“I walked into the hearing assuming this would be easy, and it’s been anything but. It’s probably been one of the more excruciating,” Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said while explaining his vote against Serviss. 

Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, asked Serviss about Gov. Katie Hobbs’ recent announcement on limiting housing development in Queen Creek and Buckeye because of concerns over water shortage.  

Serviss skirted the question, saying she’s not a water expert. “That is a water issue,” she said.  

But when pressed and reminded that the decision limits Arizona’s housing supply, Serviss said that Hobbs didn’t have her in those meetings. 

“Do you think that the government should prioritize multifamily housing?” Wadsack asked. 

“I’m not a water expert,” Serviss answered. 

Things took a more uncomfortable turn when Shope asked Serviss about a statistic she cited in a comment letter back in 2018 that panelists didn’t believe could be accurate. Serviss said she didn’t remember the research that went into the letter. 

Then came the most awkward phase of questioning.  

Committee Chair Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, asked Serviss about comment letters she wrote in her prior role where she copied large swaths of the language and signed her name, but didn’t give attribution to the source material. In several of the documents referenced, the language hasn’t been changed at all.  

Serviss – and several speakers who testified on her behalf – said it’s common practice for advocacy groups to use the same language, but Hoffman and the other Republican lawmakers felt Serviss crossed a line.  

“You stole these excerpts,” Hoffman said bluntly.  

Serviss insisted that she believes what she did is accepted practice. 

The most condemnation she faced is regarding a letter she signed that used language from a Bloomberg news article. Not only does the letter Serviss signed use paragraphs from the article, it uses a quote from a source in the article and subtracts the source’s name. 

“This one doesn’t show just laziness; this one shows that you’re intentionally taking other people’s work,” Hoffman said of the Bloomberg letter. 

“I was today year’s old when someone is telling me that this is an unaccepted practice,” Serviss responded. 

Serviss was heavily supported in the public comment period, but in explaining their recommendation to reject her, Republicans indicated their decisions hinged on the letters.  

Hoffman put the blame on Hobbs for not vetting Serviss as a nominee. 

“Today, extremists in the Senate made it clear they’re more interested in creating a political circus than fairly scrutinizing cabinet nominees. At the hearing, industry experts, housing advocates, Veterans, and critical stakeholders unanimously recognized Director Serviss’ qualifications and expertise. Rejecting the Director is a disservice to the people of Arizona who she is committed to serving. It’s now obvious that extremist Jake Hoffman and the DINO committee are interested in nothing more than playing political games and making a mockery of the nominee confirmation process,” Hobbs’ Communications Director Christian Slater said in a statement. 

“This is not normal practice in the professional world. I think it is very, very clear that Ms. Serviss in her career prior to this … was a mouthpiece for other organizations,” Hoffman said explaining his closing comments. “We cannot allow folks who have a questionable professional record of conduct to move forward.”