Rep. Shooter sexually harassed women, created hostile work environment, investigator finds

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A House investigation confirmed today that there is “credible evidence” Republican Rep. Don Shooter violated a sexual harassment policy and created a hostile working environment at the Capitol.

After the allegations against Shooter surfaced, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard suspended Shooter from his powerful position as the chairman of the House Appropriations committee.

Mesnard said today Shooter will be permanently removed from all committee assignments immediately. Mesnard also said he will seek to censure Shooter for his behavior.

Additionally, Mesnard wants to institute a formal code of conduct and prohibit the consumption of alcohol on House premises.

Mesnard said he wants to add a formal anti-harassment policy to the House rules, which carry the force of law. He will formalize a human resources department for the House as well, he said.

Shooter said in a statement that he is reviewing the report and made no indication he will resign. He thanked his colleagues and the investigators for their work.

“This has been a humbling and eye-opening experience for me,” Shooter said. “I look forward to working to repair relationships and serving my constituents and our great state.”

In their conclusion, investigators Craig Morgan and Lindsay Hesketh said Shooter broke the House harassment policy, and his “repeated pervasive conduct” had created a hostile work environment.

“Although we could not conclude that all of the allegations made against Mr. Shooter occurred, or if they did, also violated the policy, there remain several credible allegations evidencing that Mr. Shooter has engaged in a pattern of unwelcome and hostile conduct toward other members of the legislature and those who have business at the Capitol,” the investigators wrote.

During a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Mesnard told reporters that a formal censure, though rare, is appropriate in this situation. He added that if “any other misbehavior occurs,” he would move to expel Shooter.

A formal censure becomes part of the official House record, he said, a black mark that will follow Shooter for the rest of his career.

“This is a big deal and maybe all that he’ll be remembered for at the end of the day. I don’t know. But it’s a very big deal,” Mesnard said of the censure.

He said he will leave it up to voters to decide whether they want to keep Shooter in office.

Mesnard said he informed Shooter of his decision to remove him from committee today. Shooter felt the punishment was “too harsh,” Mesnard said.

“He was not skipping for joy,” he said.

The investigation began after Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, named Shooter as one of the men in the legislature who had harassed her. She told KTVK (Channel 3) political reporter Dennis Welch that Shooter asked about her chest in her office and came uninvited to her room with beer at a work conference, where she didn’t answer the door.

Shooter countered Ugenti-Rita’s claims with allegations of his own, saying she was upset with him because he was critical of her for having a “very public affair” with a staffer. He said Ugenti-Rita was lying, and asked Mesnard to investigate his claims against her as well.

The investigation did not find evidence that Ugenti-Rita violated the House harassment policy.

After Ugenti-Rita came forward, eight other women told stories of inappropriate, sexually charged comments and unwanted touching.

Democratic lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez said Shooter touched her knee at an off-site meeting to discuss legislation in 2013. A former Capitol Times intern, Kendra Penningroth, said Shooter gave her a lengthy bear hug at a work event in 2017. Tara Zika, a business development director, said Shooter made inappropriate comments about her looks and made a vulgar gesture to her at a conference in 2017.

Two Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Athena Salman and Wenona Benally, accused Shooter of making inappropriate comments while in the House.

The former publisher of the Arizona Republic, Mi-Ai Parrish, said Shooter made a comment that was both racist and sexual in a meeting in 2016.

The women at the Arizona Capitol join their colleagues across the country and across industries. Reporting by The New York Times and the New Yorker in October 2017 broke open sexual harassment claims from numerous women against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Since then, women have gone public with accusations against powerful men in many industries, including politics. Dozens of statehouses across the country have grappled with allegations of harassment by men within their ranks.

After allegations of Shooter were made public by the media, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard began an investigation, led by outside attorney Craig Morgan, to look into the claims.

The investigation is the first test of a newly crafted House policy that bans harassment, something the chamber didn’t have in place until late last year after Ugenti-Rita said, initially without naming names, that she had been harassed.

But not all of the allegations could be substantiated with independent, credible evidence, the investigation concluded.

Of the women’s claims, the investigators said they could not find such evidence to support Rodriguez’s claim, nor the entirety of Zika’s claims. The investigation did confirm Penningroth’s claims, and several other claims made by Ugenti-Rita. It also found Salman’s account credible, and Benally’s, though the investigators said Benally’s situation would not be a violation of the House policy.

The investigation includes allegations from other people who had not yet been made public. Another female lobbyist, Amy Love, who works for the courts, alleged Shooter made a comment about being the only lawmaker who had the “balls” to do something, then grabbed his genitals and shook them.

The investigators said Love’s claims were credible, despite Shooter’s contention that he didn’t think the events happened as described because Love is “not that cute,” which the investigators said was of no consequence.

Another complaint from Rep. Darin Mitchell alleged Shooter made a comment to another person, Adam Stevens, regarding the race for the House Speaker. Shooter allegedly told Stevens that he would take Mitchell into the bathroom and have anal sex with him in front of Mitchell’s wife, and do it again until Mitchell liked him. The House investigators said they believe Shooter made these comments.

Kurt Altman, Ugenti-Rita’s attorney, said Tuesday that his client feels vindicated. There are some characterizations of Ugenti-Rita’s testimony to investigators that “she doesn’t think are exactly accurate,” but overall, she’s pleased with the report, Altman said.

“For the most part, I do believe, and she believes, that the facts that they have evidence of, credible evidence of, are laid out well, and she’s very happy to have it over and feels vindicated,” Altman said.

At this time, Altman said there’s no plans for Ugenti-Rita to seek further action against Shooter than what Mesnard has proposed.

“It’s hard to say if it’s enough,” Altman said of the speaker’s punitive actions. “But for her and her participation, I do think it’s over. Now it’s in the hands of leadership in the House and all the other members. This was, as you might imagine, one of the most difficult portions of her life. I mean, this was brutal, from the time she came out to today. She’s happy that’s over.”

House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios said Democratic House members are still reviewing the report, but an initial reading of it “paints a detailed and disturbing picture of pervasive sexual harassment and sexism on the part of Rep. Shooter.”

Rios said Mesnard’s recommended sanctions are well-deserved, but the Democratic caucus is still deciding if the actions go far enough, or if further actions, like a call for expulsion or ethics hearing, are warranted.

Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, said Tuesday that it’s not for him to decide if more action should be taken against Shooter, such as a motion to expel. That’s up to the women who came forward with stories of Shooter’s behavior.

“For me, it’s kind of a delicate situation. I don’t want to be seen as trying to take justice away from other people as well, because it’s not about me, it’s about the people that made the report,” Cardenas said. “And until they feel whole, it’s really kind of a waiting game to see what they want.”

Gov. Doug Ducey’s office is still combing through the details in the report, spokesman Patrick Ptak said in an email today.

“But the governor has made it clear — there is no room for sexual harassment at the state Capitol or anywhere else,” Ptak said.



-Kurt M. Altman, PLC, is a former state and federal prosecutor and Alison Holcomb is director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.

This story was originally posted on the Arizona Capitol Times website.