On Wednesday, the Arizona Capitol Times reported that six women including Rep. Ugenti-Rita experienced sexual harassment from Rep. Don Shooter. After Ugenti-Rita named Shooter in a tweet, other women came forward with Shooter stories.
The Capitol Times’ article identified Democratic lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez, freshman Rep. Athena Salman (D-Tempe), 19-year-old intern, Kendra Penningroth, and three other unidentified women who claimed to have encounters of the Shooter kind.
Shooter and others were quick to point out that Ugenti-Rita reportedly had an affair with a staffer. During that period, members expressed deep concern that Ugenti-Rita was putting the staffer at risk. Those concerns deepened when the staffer appeared at work with obvious signs of trauma. While many speculated that the staffer fell victim to Ugenti-Rita’s soon-to-be ex-husband, the staffer claimed he had been in a vehicle collision. The source of the physical damage remained unidentified, but the exploitation of a subordinate cast a pall over the House of Representatives for some time.
The Ugenti-Rita affair did become a subject of dark humor however when the Capitol Times featured a cartoon of Ugenti-Rita and the staff member in an embrace kissing.
Women described incidents in which Shooter hugged them inappropriately and made comments that were “extreme and sexual in nature,” according to an article by Laurie Roberts for the Arizona Republic.
Shooter apologized for his actions and then retracted the apology. Shooter then denied that the specific incidents identified by Ugenti-Rita had occurred. According to the Yellow Sheet:
Shooter “vehemently denied Ugenti-Rita’s claims, said she was lying about him, and called for a House Ethics Committee investigations into the entire matter. Shooter also threatened possible legal action. His statement is published in full below:
“Earlier today I was told that Ms. Ugenti was upset by some comments I made, but I wasn’t given any details on what she had accused me of saying. I responded that if I had said the wrong things I was sorry and that I would talk with her. Since then, I’ve actually seen the text of Ms. Ugenti’s accusations and I absolutely withdraw my apology. I’ve been happily married for 41 years, I’ve never cheated on my wife, and there isn’t a woman on this planet I would leave my wife for. Michelle and I got along well when we were both first elected, as we shared a similar irreverent sense of humor, were both conservatives, etc. But that’s all.
“The trouble with Ms. Ugenti stems from my publicly voiced disapproval over how she has conducted herself personally, with staff, and later with legislation. While virtually every member of the legislature just whispered disapprovingly at Ms. Ugenti’s conduct, I actually said things out loud. I was particularly critical of her carrying on a very public affair with House staff, specifically the House Speaker’s Chief of Staff. I knew Frank, Michelle’s husband and the father of her kids, and I thought it was a lousy thing to do. In fact, I complained about it to the Speaker at the time. Obviously, she didn’t want my advice or opinion and she continued the affair until it destroyed her marriage. To say that we didn’t get along aftert hat time would be an understatement. Later I took offense to the way she screwed with really good bills, like being the only Republican to vote no on a Blue Lives Matter bill to better protect the police from violent assault.
“I can’t speak to anything anyone else did or didn’t do, but Ms. Ugenti is the only member of the Legislature to make masturbation jokes to a fellow member (and pastor) during a committee hearing, and to my knowledge she is the only member of the Legislature to carry on a very public affair with a subordinate.
“Ms. Ugenti is lying about me and I have asked Speaker Mesnard to have the entire matter investigated by the House Ethics Committee/Counsel. At the conclusion of their work, I will consider taking further legal action in this matter.”
After Ugenti-Rita identified Shooter, House Majority Whip Rep. Kelly Townsend addressed the accusations in a press release. “I am concerned about the accusation of sexual harassment by Don Shooter, and can state that I am not a witness to this behavior toward Michelle Ugenti-Rita by Mr. Shooter,” said Townsend. “I am concerned, however, that although there is a policy in place for addressing harassment, that it could definitely be fortified and made better in an effort to prevent such behavior, and for that reason I have opened a bill folder in anticipation of placing into statute language that codifies this fortified policy.”
“I personally have witnessed sexist comments and maltreatment of Ms. Ugenti-Rita (not by Mr. Shooter) in the past and have also been on the receiving end of both unwanted sexual advances by more than one person as well as intimidating behavior and retaliation by another in a position of power in years passed,” alleged Townsend in the press release. “I was able to handle one such situation, yet had to escalate a second, to where the current Speaker and Majority leader were able to correct the situation without further incident. Because we have a unique work environment and no HR department to turn to, we must rely on our peers to address the problem, along with staff hired by our peers. Although I commend our speaker for addressing the issue, we’ll only have him through this next year. There is no assurance that future leadership would be as proactive. The policy needs to be codified.”
Shooter has earned a reputation as a boorish drunk over the years.
Mesnard issued a statement later on Wednesday in which he announced that the House of Representatives has launched multiple investigations into reports of sexual harassment at the Legislature including those made by both Shooter and Ugenti-Rita. “All allegations of sexual harassment will be taken seriously in the House,” said Mesnard. “The House has a formal policy in place to investigate and remedy reports of sexual harassment, and we will be utilizing that process. A bipartisan team of investigators will be conducting thorough reviews of all allegations made and will expand their investigations if more information is gathered.”
House Democratic Leader Rebecca Rios also responded to Ugenti-Rita’s “very serious” allegations. She called on House leaders “to convene a bi-partisan investigation team that will thoroughly investigate these allegations, as well as hear the concerns of other people about their own experiences with Rep. Shooter. The investigation must allow everyone impacted to feel comfortable and safe in coming forward with information without fear of reprisal. We look forward to participating in that process and in working with the speaker on continuing to create a safe and productive workplace.”
After all of the leaders issued their statements, House members said it is likely the investigation will hit lawmakers other than Shooter. Two sessions ago, in the then-Gowan lead House, the sexual harassment of an insubordinate hit the democrats. Rios reportedly had an affair with a member of the security staff. The man reportedly spoke of the matter to others and was subsequently fired. House members were shocked that an subordinate would be fired for what appeared to be a matter of free speech. Yet, the lawmaker at the center of the matter was unapologetic for the apparent abuse of power and she was not held responsible.
Many are wondering if the abuse of that employee will become a subject of the investigation or if the abuse will be swept under the rug.
Abuse of women took center-stage last year, when Rep. Jesus Rubacalva stated on Facebook that he wanted to “throat punch” Sen. Debbie Lesko. Despite pleas from Republican women that Rubacalva resign, the Democrats argued that an apology from Rubacalva was all that was necessary. Rubacalva was later forced to resign his seat due to campaign finance violations.