‘Multiple investigations’ launched on harassment claims at state legislature
PHOENIX -- House Speaker J.D. Mesnard launched “multiple investigations’’ Wednesday into reports of sexual harassment at the Legislature as several lawmakers and a lobbyist came forward with new allegations, naming Rep. Don Shooter as the offender.
The inquiry was triggered by Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, who had previously said an unnamed legislator had harassed her, publicly accused the Yuma Republican of multiple incidents stretching over several years.
On Wednesday, she detailed three specific incidents for Capitol Media Services, including one where she said Shooter, at the time a senator, came to her office, commented about her figure and asked her whether her breasts were real.
She said he also showed up at her hotel room with a six-pack of beer when both were at an out-of-state conference, and cited an incident going back to 2011 where Ugenti-Rita said Shooter said some “very inappropriate things to her,’’ to the point where she was so unnerved that she decided to write them down.
The decision by Ugenti-Rita to go public triggered others to come forward later Wednesday.s
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, filed her own complaint Wednesday against Shooter. She told Capitol Media Services that he approached her during the first week of session and told her she would be “a nice view to look at.’’
“It definitely made me uncomfortable,’’ she said. But Salman, a first-term lawmaker, said she was unsure enough of herself at the time to report it to anyone.
And Rep. Wenona Benally, D-Window Rock, said she “witnessed Rep. Shooter using suggesting and sexually inappropriate language in my presence.’’
Separately, the Arizona Capitol Times reports that lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez said Shooter made inappropriate advances, putting his hand on her knee, when she was talking with him about legislation at a restaurant.
The issue of sex harassment at the Capitol apparently goes beyond Shooter.
House Majority Whip Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said Wednesday she has 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 past.’’
“I was able to handle one such situation,’’ she said. But Townsend said she had to get the top House Republicans to intercede in another.
In both cases, she provided no names.
And Townsend said she has personally witnessed “sexist comments and maltreatment’’ of Ugenti-Rita, though not by Shooter.
Mesnard’s inquiry will not end there.
Shooter, in a response to Ugenti-Rita’s comments, made his own statement questioning the propriety of a relationship she started years ago with a House staffer.
That relationship effectively was a little-guarded secret, with even the speaker being aware of the situation. But Mesnard press aide Matthew Specht said now that Shooter has raised the issue it has to be investigated.
Ugenti-Rita would not comment on the complaint.
Ugenti-Rita’s initial allegations -- before she spelled out who had allegedly harassed her -- came on the heels of national publicity about incidents involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. That led to a flood of other complaints, not only against Weinstein but also others.
As to the decision to name Shooter, she acknowledged that the incidents are not new. But she told Capitol Media Services this seemed to be the right time to go public.
“I knew that there were other women out there,’’ she said. “And I knew that I had a responsibility to do something about it, for myself and for others.’’
Shooter would not comment about either Ugenti-Rita’s allegations against him or his own about her.
“All allegations of sexual harassment will be taken seriously in the House,’’ Mesnard said in a prepared statement.
“A bipartisan team of investigators will be conducting thorough reviews of all allegations made,’’ he continued. And Mesnard promised the inquiry will expand “if more information is gathered.’’
Townsend noted that Mesnard, in the wake of Ugenti-Rita’s initial complaints -- before she named names -- put a written policy in place to deal with allegations of harassment. But she said more may be needed.
“It could definitely be fortified and made better in an effort to prevent such behavior,’’ she said. In fact, Townsend said she is crafting legislation to put any strengthened policy into law.
Some of the allegations against Shooter date back to when he was a senator.
But Senate President Steve Yarbrough said his chamber won’t be conducting its own probe. He said it’s a simple matter of the fact that the Senate’s power to discipline Shooter -- assuming he is guilty of anything -- ended when he ceased being a member of that chamber.
The allegations even got to a point where Gov. Doug Ducey felt compelled to point out that the executive branch of government, including his office, has its own policies.
“There’s zero tolerance of sexual harassment,’’ he said Wednesday afternoon. “It has no place in the workplace, whether you’re in the public sector or the private sector.’’
Ducey noted that the Legislature is a separate and co-equal branch of government, with his office -- and executive department policies -- having no sway over what happens in the chambers or to its members. Instead, the governor said he supports Mesnard’s decision to investigate.
“Let’s get the facts and they can conduct next steps,’’ he said.