House expels member over sexual harassment claims

Prescott’s Campbell, Stringer join Shooter in voting against

The House voted to expel Yuma Republican Don Shooter on Thursday. (Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

The House voted to expel Yuma Republican Don Shooter on Thursday. (Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

PHOENIX — Concluding that Rep. Don Shooter’s repeated actions of sexual harassment against lawmakers, lobbyists and others were inexcusable, the state House voted Thursday afternoon to expel him.

The 56-3 vote occurred despite a last-minute plea by the Yuma Republican to, instead, punish him with a censure.

Until Thursday morning, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said the lesser penalty was appropriate, given that the investigative report that found credible evidence of Shooter’s harassment noted that much of it had occurred before 2017, when Shooter he was in the state Senate.

Joining Shooter in voting against his expulsion were both of Prescott’s representatives, Noel Campbell and David Stringer, who are both Republicans.

Campbell later explained that his vote does not indicate support for Shooter’s actions. “I am absolutely opposed to sexual harassment, and I don’t condone it,” Campbell said late Thursday.

He added that he is not a friend of Shooter’s and does not socialize with the Yuma representative.

But Campbell maintains that the House of Representatives is “an imperfect body to judge Shooter.” Rather, Campbell said, “The voters who elected him – that’s the body that should judge him.”

Campbell also made a distinction between physical sexual assault, such as groping, and the improper behavior of which Shooter was accused. Campbell said he cast his vote “in light of the fact that there was no physical assault other than outrageous behavior.”

Campbell added that he had been prepared to censure Shooter for his behavior, but stopped short of supporting expulsion.

“I wanted to punish him,” Campbell said. “I just thought the ultimate punishment should come from the Yuma voters.”

Stringer, a lawyer, said his decision “had nothing to do with the merits of the case or the seriousness of the allegations.”

Instead, Stringer said, he voted against Shooter’s expulsion because he felt it violated Shooter’s right to due process.

“We were handed a 70-some-odd-page report,” Stringer said. Although “very well-intentioned,” the report makes “findings of fact and conclusions of law.” Stringer said he cannot delegate such decisions to someone else.

He also stresses that none of the allegations were made under oath, which he calls “an important point on the thoroughness of the report.”

Although acknowledging that it would have been an “onerous process,” Stringer maintains that the House should have conducted a due-process hearing on the question of expulsion.

Absent such a process, Stringer said, “Mr. Shooter, in my opinion, has the right to bring a lawsuit” against the House, seeking a determination on “Did this comport with due process?”

Mesnard changed his mind after Shooter sent a letter to his colleagues, asking that they delay Thursday’s vote while they consider whether there also are credible charges against Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita. The Scottsdale Republican was the first to level harassment charges against Shooter.

Shooter noted the report by the outside investigator hired by the House also mentions there were “unsolicited, sexually explicit communications,” sent by Brian Townsend, a former House staffer, to someone who was not identified. That is material since Townsend was dating Ugenti-Rita.

Investigator Craig Morgan described these as “egregious and potentially unlawful acts.”

photo

Prescott Republicans Noel Campbell (seated) and David Stringer (right, standing) were the only members of the House of Representatives to join Don Shooter in voting against his expulsion from that body over sexual harassment claims. The vote was 56-3, forcing Shooter from office. (Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

But Morgan said that there was no evidence that Ugenti-Rita had been responsible for sending out what are believed to be naked photos.

While Shooter was hoping the letter might lead to at least a delay in action against him, it had the opposite effect on Mesnard.

“Rep. Shooter’s letter is nothing more than an effort to use the individual (former staffer) as a pawn, despite repeated requests from the individual’s attorney that Rep. Shooter not do anything to jeopardize the individual’s anonymity,” the speaker explained, saying that Shooter is “further victimizing the individual.”

And that, said Mesnard, changed everything, leading him to decide that expulsion was the proper penalty.

“Rep. Shooter’s letter represents a clear act of retaliation and intimidation, and yet another violation of the House’s harassment policy,” he said.

Mesnard also said that Shooter did not help himself with his actions prior to the vote, going around the House and making comments like “it’s a great day for a hanging.”

And the speaker said that while he did not consider Shooter to be a violent person, he personally went to his office and asked him to surrender a gun he kept there. He said Shooter complied.

“I’ve said stupid things; I’ve done stupid things,” Shooter said in asking colleagues to limit his punishment to a public censure. And Shooter, speaking for less than two minutes, reminded other lawmakers that he apologized earlier this year during a floor session dealing with sexual harassment training.

The investigative report found “credible evidence” Shooter violated anti-harassment policies several times with Ugenti-Rita, including making sexual comments and suggestions and making “unwelcome sexualized comments” about her breasts.

But the investigator also found incidents of Shooter’s harassment and improper conduct or comments with others, including a lobbyist, a newspaper staffer and the former publisher of the Arizona Republic.

“I can’t go back to the past,” Shooter said. “But I can change the future if given the opportunity.”

Shooter then did a classic “mic drop” and walked out. That left colleagues to talk for more than the next hour about the charges of sexual harassment that are detailed in the 82-page report by the independent investigator and what punishment was appropriate.

Mesnard, for his part, defended short-circuiting that process, saying he was concerned about privacy of the victims, some of whom were not named in the report. And the speaker insisted these charges were different than others in the past.

Yet the last time something like this came up, in 2012, the House had open hearings in debating charges against Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, who was accused of verbal harassment of colleagues. Patterson quit ahead of an expulsion vote.

Rep. Darrin Mitchell, R-Goodyear, defended the report. He described the report as “not a hack job.” He said the report’s findings were backed up with facts. According to the report, Mitchell -- elected from the same district as Shooter -- had been subject to crude remarks.

Nor was Mitchell swayed by arguments that lawmakers should do nothing and wait for voters to decide.

“Our job is to cleanse and take care of ourselves when something like this happens,” Mitchell said.

“We don’t leave it to the voters,” he continued. “When the problem is so egregious and the morality so low, it is our duty to take care of this body and to expel him from it.”

Minority Leader Rebecca Rios said the report showed “a pervasive pattern of inappropriate behavior” by Shooter.

For some, the issue of whether to expel Shooter came down to the larger question of making sure the House can continue to function.

“This individual needs to be removed from our fellowship,” said Majority Leader John Allen, R-Scottsdale. “We need to have that seat occupied by someone, hopefully, who understands that this is a place to serve the public and not let the worser angels of their nature rule their activities and their conduct.”

Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, chastised other legislative leaders, past and present, for letting the situation get to this point. He noted the investigative report said allegations against Shooter go back to shortly after he entered the Senate in 2010.

“Silence is action,” Thorpe said.

“Over the years, Republican and Democratic leaders in both the House and the Senate have had a blind eye to all kinds of bad behavior and haven’t addressed it,” Thorpe said. “Too often bad behavior is not addressed, which means that the behavior continues unaddressed and unchecked.”

Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, agreed.

“I find it unfortunate that we’re dealing with something that could have been dealt with up to seven, eight years ago,” he said.

Others also said that the kind of allegations made against Shooter that led to his ouster are not confined solely to him.

“This, in fact, is a hostile work environment for women,” said Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe. “For reasons I believe are gender based, I have been silenced, diminished and humiliated in committee.”

Rep. Becky Nutt, R-Clifton, tearing up, had her own take.

“You guys need to knock it off,” she told colleagues. “What we’re doing here is important.”

Some lawmakers said they had no problem with voting to expel one of their own.

Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said Thursday’s vote could have been avoided had Shooter, seeing the sentiment of his colleagues, chosen to quit.

“He chose not to,” she said.

Thursday’s vote sets in place a process in which Republican precinct committee workers will meet to nominate three people to take his seat. The final decision will be up to the Yuma County Board of Supervisors.

Mesnard said that Shooter, in his years at the Capitol, has done some good things, “but he will probably only be remembered for this.”

Today’s vote marks the first expulsion of an Arizona state lawmaker since 1991, when the state Senate ejected Carolyn Walker, then the Senate majority whip, in the wake of the “AzScam” investigation. She and other lawmakers were caught in an undercover sting operation, agreeing to take money in exchange for their votes; all the others resigned.

The last House expulsion came in 1948, when two members were removed following a fistfight.

Daily Courier reporter Cindy Barks contributed to this article.

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