The House withheld sexually explicit communications about Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita from hundreds of pages of documents made public on the Don Shooter sexual harassment investigation.
The records, which were first obtained March 16 by the Arizona Republic and KPNX 12 following a legal demand, mostly expand on the 82-page investigative report the House released on Jan. 30.
However, the documents omit information related to sexually explicit communications former House staffer Brian Townsend shared of Ugenti-Rita.
A notice included in the released records states that the documents pertaining to that incident “are only maintained” at Sherman & Howard, the law firm hired to conduct the investigation, “because of future security concerns.” It did not expand on what those concerns are.
The only reference to the incident is in an email sent Dec. 20 from Shooter’s lawyer, Daniel Pasternak, to Craig Morgan of Sherman & Howard. That part of the email, however, is heavily redacted.
“Although … is knowledgeable of the sexually explicit … sent by Representative Ugenti-Rita and Mr. Townsend to … was not Representative Shooter’s original source of that information,” Pasternak wrote.
The investigation led to the expulsion of Shooter, who investigators found had sexually harassed several women, including Ugenti-Rita and other lawmakers.
Morgan confirmed that the records referenced in the investigative report are being held in his office. He declined to say why the records were being solely kept at his office, and he also declined to comment on whether there are other records that his office possesses that the House doesn’t.
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said even if the House did have the documents, it would be inappropriate to release them. He added that the allegation was only investigated to determine if a member of the legislature, presumably Ugenti-Rita, though he didn’t name her, had sent the explicit messages.
“When it was discovered that the person was not involved, the matter was closed,” he said, adding that it went beyond the scope of the investigation’s focus.
That’s one aspect of the investigation that several lawmakers have sought more information about.
Following the release of the investigative report, Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, sent a letter to several local law enforcement agencies asking them to investigate whether Townsend violated Arizona’s revenge porn law by sharing the messages.
Kern told the Arizona Capitol Times today that he has not received any further information from law enforcement about whether the incident will be investigated. He added that he’s meeting with the Maricopa Attorney’s Office this week to continue discussing the issue.
Amanda Jacinto, spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said she could only confirm that the agency received Kern’s letter. She could not confirm whether the incident was being investigated.
The Attorney General’s Office and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which Kern also sent letters to, did not immediately return requests for comment.
Rep. Maria Syms, R-Paradise Valley, said releasing all of the records pertaining to the investigation would ensure that the investigation was conducted properly and was consistent with House rules.
“If that’s the case, we should celebrate the process, but as long as we withhold documents from the public eye it calls the process into question,” she said. “I think a great way to strengthen the public’s trust in elected leaders is to be fully open and transparent regarding any investigations that are funded by the taxpayer and that result in the expulsion of a member.”
Kern said the documents should be released because the investigation was taxpayer-funded.
“The taxpayers paid for that report. Period. So those are public records and those public records need to be released,” he said.
The total cost of the investigation was $195,520.
The records released March 16 include a copy of the card Shooter left Ugenti-Rita with lyrics to an overtly sexual song about tequila. It also included a copy of a business card he left on her car with “TOY” – thinking of you – written on it.
The documents also include a handwritten journal entry from Ugenti-Rita describing an incident in which Shooter professed his affection for her while they met over lunch, which she wrote made her feel uncomfortable.
It also revealed that Shooter’s lawyer asked that he be reinstated as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, to which Mesnard responded with a one-word answer: “No.”
However, the records don’t include any underlying documents related to the investigation, such as notes, transcriptions, or audio or video recordings of the interviews conducted with Shooter, Ugenti-Rita, who first levied allegations against the Yuma Republican, or any of the other victims or witnesses.
Mesnard said notes and any work product stemming from the investigation belongs to the attorneys who conducted the investigation and the House does not have copies of them.
Much of the 340 pages were duplicate emails between Morgan and Shooter’s and Ugenti-Rita’s lawyer. The first 20 pages are a copy of the House harassment policy, which was widely circulated when first drafted, and there are roughly 40 pages of local media coverage of the investigation.
There are several blank pages throughout the stack of records.
In a letter sent March 15 to First Amendment lawyer David Bodney, who represented the Republic and 12 News, House Public Records Counsel Justin Riches said the House has “communicated with law enforcement” about releasing the records pursuant to a court order “and stands ready to immediately fulfill those demands should they arise.”
However, he added that further records wouldn’t be publicly released, noting that Mesnard “has indicated that this is the final release on this matter.”
Mesnard said from the beginning he’s tried to balance victims’ privacy rights with the need for transparency. The documents the House released, he said, don’t jeopardize any of the victims or further victimizes those involved.
Bodney, however, argued that the House could have redacted victim’s names or any identifying information. State statute, he said, identifies redaction as a way to balance the public’s right to know with a victim’s privacy rights.
“To my knowledge, there remains a host of records that could be produced if only with names or other minor details redacted,” he said.
Bodney said the House’s refusal to release the records “raises substantial questions about the process and its outcome,” questions he said could be answered through greater transparency.