Today, members of the Arizona Legislature voted 56-3 to expel Rep. Don Shooter from the House of Representatives. Shooter had been found to have harassed women over the years.
Before casting the last vote against Shooter, House Speaker Rep. J.D. Mesnard stated, “This is a horrifying day. It’s no small thing to override the will of voters. I pleaded with Mr. Shooter to resign, to not force this vote. He would not back down.”
Mesnard had supported only censuring Shooter. He told fellow lawmakers that unless Shooter “doubled down” in his defense of himself and attacks on others he would not vote to expel him. But Shooter did double down, and sent a letter to fellow lawmakers Thursday morning. In the letter, he made veiled allegations about sexual harassment by Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita of a female staffer.
— BlogForArizona (@BlogForArizona) February 1, 2018
The letter reads:
It is with a heavy heart that I write this letter. Over the past few months, I have done much soul searching about what it means to be elected, to serve in elected office for the people I represent and our state. I have thought a lot about my actions and those I have caused to feel that I did not value by my careless, insensitive and offensive attempts at humor. I have thought a lot about Representative Townsend’s plea on the floor yesterday and the Speaker’s private, but urgent requests since the first week of this painful and public journey to resign.
Much of my focus has been inward and gradually coming to understand the impact of conduct, whether intentional or unintentional, that results in someone feeling demoralized and devalued. These are not just words I am saying because I have to. I care deeply that I have caused others discomfort at best and humiliation at worst. Those who know me, know that has been the hardest part of all of this. When I said that I want to begin to listen and apologize personally, to those who I have wronged, (who are interested) I meant it.
I have respect for those who had the courage to come forward whom I have wronged, because I know it has not been easy. They have paved the way for so many others to feel empowered and to educate those of us who just didn’t understand. Which is why I am writing today. Not to preserve myself but to honor one woman who reluctantly came forward even though she was terrified about the consequences of speaking the truth. With limited means, she hired an attorney and faced the biggest fear of her life because, ultimately, she dared to believe that she did not deserve to be sexually harassed and when people heard what she had endured, these private, humiliating experiences would be exposed and she would know that she never again would have to quietly and gracefully endure such conduct. She did not contact the media. She contacted and met with the independent investigator. It was the hardest thing she has ever done in her life. Yet, inexplicably, the pattern of outrageous conduct that she described, including comments allegedly made directly to her by her elected boss, as well as being subjected to her boss’ exposed genitalia, were not detailed in the report. What has been done to her, by omitting her story and not giving it the respect it deserves you disgrace the mission of the sexual harassment investigation committee and our chamber. No matter what happens to me, this young woman deserves better. The process matters. The truth matters; the process must be fair and complete.
I ask that before there is further discussion of the results of this investigation, the investigator be permitted to bring forward, with dignity and compassion, and ideally anonymously because I am certain that she has lost all faith in the system. This historic report must not hurt those it was intended to protect and empower. I ask that all of you honor the courage of this young woman whose only mistake, at this point, was the mistake of believing her voice mattered. Before we close this effort and consider consequences, I ask that the investigator not be restricted from describing and shining a light on this young woman’s agony. How dare this young woman be dismissed and hidden when she risked so much to come forward. If that is not permitted, fortunately, those with firsthand knowledge can come forward and right this wrong in the ethics committee.
I have come to understand the devastating impact of sexual harassment and no legislator, me included, has the right to sexually harass anyone. I have heightened sense of awareness and compassion for those I have hurt and have been hurt by others. Starting with my own conduct, allegations must be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
On Thursday, Rep. Anthony Kern called for an investigation of Ugenti-Rita’s actions toward a former female staffer of a sexual nature. The allegations include the claim that Ugenti-Rita and a staffer, Brian Townsend (no relation to Rep. Townsend), with whom she was having an affair, attempted to pull the female into sexual encounters. Apparently Townsend and Ugenti-Rita sent photos of a sexual nature to the female staffer.
Those photos were included in the first draft of an investigative report conducted at the direction of Mesnard after Ugenti-Rita made her allegations against Shooter. They did not make their way into the final draft, according to sources, after female lawmakers complained that the photos themselves were a form of sexual harassment.
In a statement released before the vote, Mesnard blasted Shooter for discussing the allegations against Ugenti-Rita and his “continuation and escalation of his improper conduct, even after Speaker Mesnard’s warning:”
“The outside investigators, who Rep. Shooter praised on Tuesday, have thoroughly examined every allegation made, including the allegation referenced in Rep. Shooter’s letter. After addressing issues of privacy and relevancy, they included their findings in the report.”
“I’ve spoken with the individual referenced by Rep. Shooter, and the individual has stated that the letter does not reflect the individual’s reaction to the report. Rep. Shooter’s letter is nothing more than an effort to use the individual as a pawn – despite repeated requests
from the individual’s attorney that Rep. Shooter not do anything to jeopardize the individual’s anonymity. He’s not standing up for the victim but rather is further victimizing the individual.”
“Rep. Shooter’s letter represents a clear act of retaliation and intimidation, and yet another violation of the House’s harassment policy, so I will be moving to expel him from the House of Representatives immediately.”
Today was a tough day for the #AZHouse. We had to expel (first time in 70 yrs) one of our members due to a persistent pattern of harassment. As hard as it was, it was necessary. I appreciated the courage of my colleagues to make this tough decision. It’s an honor to serve w/ you.
— J.D. Mesnard (@JDMesnard) February 1, 2018
While lawmakers are disappointed that Ugenti-Rita appears to be held to a different standard and the process was questioned by Rep. David Stringer, a well-respected attorney legislator, overall they are grateful this episode is over.
“Our speaker has been very diligent and slow to act. We don’t have a clear process. We do not have an HR department,” said Rep. Kelly Townsend in praise of Speaker Mesnard’s handling of the situation while admitting that the process was flawed.
Townsend, the House Whip, had called for the expulsion of Shooter on Wednesday. In an appearance on KFYI’s James T. Harris show, Townsend stated that the unusual process of removal did not “negate what Don Shooter has done. It was demonstrative of how he behaves at the Legislature,” she said referring to the fact that Shooter dropped his microphone on his desk after voting no on his expulsion and storming out of the chamber. “Whether the process was pristine or not it doesn’t matter; he admitted to his behavior.”
“After leaving the building and talking to a few of my colleagues, it occurred to me that this is day one,” said Townsend. “This is day one for us to start over, wipe the slate clean and move forward as statesmen. Hopefully we will recover from this. This really difficult thing has brought us together.”
According to the Secretary of State’s Office, AZGOP Chairman Jonathan Lines must notify Yuma County precinct committeemen Legislative District 13 within 3 days. The precinct committeemen must then gather to nominate 3 people to fill the vacancy within 5 days of the letter to LD13.