Controversy continues to haunt the Arizona House of Representatives as a result of allegations made by Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita about sexual harassment by Rep. Don Shooter. Missteps by House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, and an apparent attack on Ugenti-Rita by female colleagues has outraged lawmakers as well as the public.
On Friday, Republican representatives Maria Syms, Regina Cobb, Becky Nutt, and Jill Norgaard surprised fellow lawmakers when they sent a letter to Mesnard demanding that alleged victim, Ugenti-Rita, be stripped of her chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The four lawmakers also demanded that the Democratic Caucus “take immediate action” to remove Rios as the House Minority Leader.
The four lawmakers essentially asserted that complaints made in the aftermath of Ugenti-Rita’s harassment revelation be treated as something other than retaliation. A total of eight women have come forward with allegations against Shooter, who has earned a reputation as a drunkard.
In Ugenti-Rita’s case, Shooter complained about a relationship Ugenti-Rita had with a House staff member a number of years ago while she was married. Since that time, voters have re-elected Ugenti-Rita, she has divorced, and she and the former staff member are now engaged.
The case of Rios is more complicated. She was in a position of power when she had an extra-marital relationship with a member of the House security staff. However, unlike Ugenti-Rita, it appears that Rios may have used her position to cause the man to lose his job. Rep. Ray Martinez, a political foe of Rios, filed an ethics complaint against her regarding what he described as an “inappropriate relationship.” with a House staffer.
The letter reads:
Dear Speaker Mesnard:
The recent sexual harassment allegations made by and against members of the House of Representatives are disturbing and warrant a comprehensive investigation of all material information and witnesses. Sexual harassment and misconduct is unacceptable and should not be tolerated in any workplace and most especially, in the Arizona House of Representatives where elected officials serve the public trust.
We are aware of multiple sexual misconduct allegations pending against Representatives Shooter, Ugenti-Rita and Rios. Representative Shooter, Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has been accused of sexual harassment of a fellow Representative as well as others. Appropriately, an investigation has commenced regarding these allegations. Representative Shooter has been removed from his position as Chairman until the investigation is completed and further action, if needed, has been determined by the House.
Representative Ugenti-Rita, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has a sexual misconduct complaint against her based on her alleged affair with a staff employee of the House as well as inappropriate sexual comments made and recorded during a public hearing. Representative Ugenti-Rita has not been removed as Chairman pending the investigation. In order to maintain equal treatment, consistency, and the integrity of House policy, Representative Ugenti-Rita should be removed from her position as Chairman until the investigation has been completed and further action, if needed, is determined by the legislature. We are requesting House leadership to take immediate action to do so.
Representative Rios, House Minority Leader, has a sexual misconduct complaint against her based on her alleged affair with a staff employee of the House who resigned his position. Representative Rios continues to serve as Minority Leader. Again, in order to maintain equal treatment, consistency, and the integrity of House policy, Representative Rios should be removed from her position of Minority Leader until the investigation has been completed and further action, if needed, has been determined by the legislature. We are requesting House Democratic Caucus leadership to take immediate action to do so.
It is disappointing that these allegations have come to light regarding our House colleagues and that taxpayer dollars and valuable resources are being expended to investigate the allegations against Representatives Shooter, Ugenti-Rita and Rios. We believe that the process and policy for addressing these allegations and any resulting accountability should be equal and consistent with respect to all of these individuals. Should the current allegations of sexual misconduct be verified as to any of the individuals, we request leadership to move to exercise appropriate authorized discipline against such individuals, up to and including expulsion proceedings.
House Representatives serve the public and should not abuse their position by exerting power and influence over others, especially through sexual misconduct. Sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual relations with House staff should not be tolerated under any circumstance.
Rep. Kelly Townsend immediately questioned the demands in a tweet:
The AZ House has no policy that prohibits a consensual relationship between Legislators and staff. It is therefore a private issue and it is inappropriate to use State resources to “investigate.” Enact a policy & then investigate, otherwise leave it to the voters to determine.
— Rep. Kelly Townsend (@KellyTownsend11) December 2, 2017
Townsend and other House members were outraged this week when Mesnard announced his unilateral decision to use House funds to cover the legal costs incurred by Shooter, Rios, Martinez, and Ugenti-Rita.
Townsend issued a statement following Mesnard’s move: “It has come to my attention today that the House of Representatives will be providing for the legal defense of Mr. Shooter in the sexual harassment claims he is now facing. I was not consulted, nor played a role on any level in this decision. I believe it is wholly inappropriate for the taxpayers to have to provide for a defense that has nothing to do with the business of the people. I oppose this idea and hope that the decision is reversed immediately.”
Rep. Mark Finchem stated, “This has not been “approved” by many members and frankly I am disgusted and outraged by this action.”