Originally Published: November 11, 2017 5:55 a.m.
PHOENIX — The top official in the state House contends the chamber has the right to investigate charges of sexual harassment against Rep. Don Shooter — and even discipline him if lawmakers find him guilty — even though the Yuma Republican was not a representative at the time of the alleged incidents.
“Technically speaking, the constitution doesn’t require justification, just simply gives authority to us over the members of this chamber,” House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said Friday. “And he is presently a member of this chamber.”
Mesnard agreed, though, the fact that many of the allegations against Shooter date back to the period of 2011 through 2016, when he was a state senator, “certainly complicates things a little bit.”
But attorney Paul Bender, who teaches constitutional law at Arizona State University, told Capitol Media Services that it may be an error to interpret those rules to allow the House to punish someone for things that were done before a lawmaker took office.
The issue comes on the heels of Mesnard appointing seven staffers as an investigative team to look into not only the charges leveled by Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, against Shooter. There also is a claim by lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez that Shooter touched her inappropriately.
Separately, Reps. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, and Winona Benally, D-Window Rock, have filed complaints accusing Shooter of inappropriate behavior. And Majority Whip Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said she, too, has been the victim of unwanted sexual comments, though not from Shooter.
The panel and the investigators that Mesnard authorized be hired also will review claims by Shooter that Ugenti-Rita herself is guilty of unethical conduct, at least in part because she entered into a romantic relationship with a House staffer and made a joke about masturbation at a hearing.
Senate President Steve Yarbrough said his chamber lost any jurisdiction over Shooter after he moved to the House. That would leave only the House, where he now serves, with any ability to sanction him if they find him guilty.
Mesnard, who on Friday suspended Shooter as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said that question of jurisdiction will be part of what the special panel and its investigators review. “Probably the next step would be the Ethics Committee and potentially the whole body, depending how far this goes,” he said.
The Arizona Constitution says that “each house may punish its members for disorderly behavior, and may, with the concurrence of two-thirds of its members, expel any member.”
House GOP spokesman Matt Specht acknowledged that the provision does not define “disorderly behavior.”
“House attorneys interpret ‘disorderly behavior’ to mean any behavior detrimental to the business of the House,” he told Capitol Media Services. He said that gives lawmakers the discretion to discipline members “for disorderly behavior that affects the business of the House, regardless of when that behavior occurred.”
And Specht also noted that there is no statute of limitations within the constitutional provision.