PHOENIX – Concluding his repeated actions of sexual harassment against lawmakers, lobbyists and others were just too wrong to excuse, the state House voted Thursday afternoon to expel Rep. Don Shooter.
The 56-3 vote occurred despite a last-minute plea by the Yuma Republican to instead punish him with a censure. In fact, until Thursday morning even House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said the lesser penalty was appropriate, given that the investigative report which found credible evidence of harassment included much had occurred before 2017, when Shooter he was in the state Senate.
But Mesnard changed his mind after Shooter sent a letter to his colleagues asking that they delay Thursday’s vote action 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 of 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 else who was not identified. That is material since Townsend was dating Ugenti-Rita.
Investigator Craig Morgan described these as “egregious and potentially unlawful acts.’’
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 would 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 the Yuma lawmakers 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 harassment and improper conduct or comments involving others, including a lobbyist, a newspaper staffer and the former publisher of the Arizona Republic.
“I can’t go back to the past,’’ he 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 detailed in the 82-page report by the independent investigator and what punishment was appropriate.
Other than Shooter himself, there were only two dissents.
Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, said the decision of Shooter’s political future should be left to the residents of his legislative district.
Fellow Prescott Republican David Stringer also dissented.
He said that Shooter’s actions, detailed in an 82-page report by the independent investigator, “should be condemned.’’ But Stringer said he could not support expulsion because of what he saw as a lack of due process.
He pointed out that the investigator, while speaking to all who made allegations against Shooter as well as Shooter himself, put no one under oath. More significant, Stringer said he was being asked to vote based on someone else’s conclusions, versus the normal process where these issues are considered in an open session of the House Ethics Committee, where witnesses come and testify.
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.