A Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled on November 18 that Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, has legislative privilege and doesn’t have to answer questions about conversations he had with Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, while he was speaker of the House and the expulsion of then-Rep. Don Shooter was pending.
Judge Sally Duncan’s ruling came as part of a lawsuit Ugenti-Rita filed against Shooter in 2018 and counter-claim Shooter filed against her. Ugenti-Rita’s claims are in connection with Shooter’s sexual harassment of her, and Shooter accuses her of spreading malicious lies and defaming him when she publicly accused him of sexual harassment.
Attorney Jennifer Rebholz, who represents Shooter, said in oral arguments that the conversations they want to ask Mesnard about do not refer to legislation, and therefore should not be covered under legislative privilege, which Mesnard has invoked to avoid answering dozens of questions.
Mesnard’s attorney Steve Tully said that the information was irrelevant.
“It’s an attempt to get leverage. Shooter is trying to get leverage over Ms. Ugenti-Rita and force her to dismiss her claim,” Tully said.
Ugenti-Rita said that male colleagues sexually harassed her on multiple occasions since 2011 and accused Shooter publicly on Twitter in 2017. More than 10 other women came forward with similar allegations against Shooter since Ugenti-Rita’s Tweet named him.
Shooter denies the allegations against him and has said that Ugenti-Rita was paid “dark money” to accuse him for “congressional aspirations.”
The House voted 56-3 on February 1, 2018, to oust Shooter after an investigative report commissioned by Mesnard found “credible evidence” that he violated anti-harassment policies with Ugenti-Rita, at the time a state representative. That included making sexual comments and suggestions.
The investigators also found incidents of harassment and improper conduct or comments involving others, including a lobbyist, a newspaper staffer, and the former publisher of The Arizona Republic.
In a separate lawsuit, he accuses Mesnard of defamation. Mesnard removed Shooter from chair and committee assignments, but did not remove Ugenti-Rita from any committees when she was accused of sexually harassing an unnamed lobbyist.
Shooter’s attorneys argue that there is a disparity in the way that accusations of sexual harassment against him were handled and the way similar allegations against Ugenti-Rita and Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, among others were handled, which Ugenti-Rita’s attorneys maintain is not relevant to the case.
The trial date is set for June 5, 2023. Both parties said they have no plans to settle before then. If the case goes to trial it will be five and a half years after Ugenti-Rita first accused Shooter of sexual harassment in 2017.