Originally Published: February 1, 2018 2:12 p.m.
PHOENIX -- Concluding his actions were just too wrong to excuse, the state House voted this 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. Other than Shooter himself, there were only two dissents, both from Prescott.
Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, said the decision should be left to the residents of Shooter's legislative district and fellow Prescott Republican David Stringer also dissented, saying he was offended by what he saw as a lack of due process.
Until Thursday morning even House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said the lesser penalty of censure was appropriate, given that much of the conduct an investigator concluded was sexual harassment had occurred before 2017, when he was in the state Senate.
Mesnard said he changed his mind after Shooter sent a letter to his colleagues asking that they delay any 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 investigator's report mentions allegations which include "unsolicited, sexually explicit communications,” being sent to someone who is believed to be a female former staffer. And investigator Craig Morton described these as "egregious and potentially unlawful acts.”
But Morgan said that Brian Townsend, a former House staffer who was dating Ugenti-Rita, accepted sole responsibility for sending out what are believed to be naked photos.
At the same time, he said Ugenti-Rita "unequivocally denied any knowledge of, or involvement in, the conduct.” And Morgan, who interviewed her, said the lawmaker was "visibly distraught” and "expressed genuine surprise and shock.”
Morgan also said that the alleged victim, after being informed that Ugenti-Rita denied involvement in the incident, said that is possible and that she "hoped” that was the case.
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 continued, 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.
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.
But Rep. Darrin Mitchell, R-Goodyear, who is one of the victims listed in the investigator's report, said it was "not a hack job.” He said the findings were clearly backed up with facts.
Mesnard said that in his years at the Capitol that Shooter has some good things.
"But he will probably only be remembered for this,” he said.
Today's vote marks the first expulsion of a lawmaker since 1991 when the 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.
In the interim, other legislators have quit prior to their colleagues having to actually bring a vote to the floor, including Rep. Daniel Patterson who quit in 2012 amid charges of verbal abuses and harassment of colleagues.