PHOENIX — Arizona taxpayers could be on the hook for up to $18,000 to pay the legal fees of lawmakers accused of ethics violations.
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard authorized up to 20 hours of legal work on behalf of Reps. Don Shooter, R-Yuma; Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale; and Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix. Each attorney is allowed to charge up to $300 an hour.
The three lawmakers were named in complaints and became the subjects of a current internal probe to see if there is evidence against them, the first step to determine if any House rules were violated and whether lawmakers should face a disciplinary hearing.
One of the complaints was thrown out late Wednesday. The chairman of the House Ethics Committee dismissed the complaint against Rios, which was filed by her fellow Democrat Ray Martinez of Phoenix.
In a letter to Martinez, Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said complaints of violations of House ethics rules need to be based on “facts within the personal knowledge of the individual making the complaint.” But Farnsworth told Martinez his complaint that Rios had “inappropriate relationships,” including one with someone who was a House staffer at the time, “appears largely based upon information you have overhead from others.”
Farnsworth said even if Martinez did have such firsthand knowledge, nothing he accused her of doing violates any law, rule or House policy.
It was not immediately known how much Rios’ lawyer had run up in legal fees authorized by the House speaker.
The most serious of the allegations are against Shooter. Nine women — three lawmakers, three lobbyists, the publisher of the Arizona Republic, a businesswoman and a newspaper intern — accuse him of inappropriate comments and harassment.
These include a claim by Ugenti-Rita that he commented about her breasts and sought a sexual relationship.
Shooter responded by filing his own complaint against Ugenti-Rita, saying she entered into a romantic relationship with a House staffer. Farnsworth’s conclusion in the Rios case could be good news for Ugenti-Rita on that allegation. Shooter also complained that Ugenti-Rita made a comment during a committee hearing about masturbation.
None of the lawmakers has issued specific responses to the allegations against them.
Mesnard, a Chandler Republican, defended letting them use state dollars to get legal help.
He said if any lawmaker were under investigation it would be the obligation of the House of Representatives, as their employer, to provide legal assistance. But with all the House lawyers now tied up doing the internal probe, Mesnard said that left outside counsel as the only option.
Not everyone agrees.
“I believe it is wholly inappropriate for the taxpayers to have to provide for a defense that has nothing to do with the business of the people,” said Majority Whip Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa. “I oppose this idea and hope that the decision is reversed immediately.”
The potential $18,000 for legal fees for the legislators could prove to be the least expensive part of the probe.
Mesnard responded to all the complaints by naming a committee of House staffers, including attorneys from both political parties, to take a closer look. That panel, in turn, hired a private lawyer, Craig Morgan, to do some of the digging.
Morgan’s contract says he will be paid what he called a discounted rate of $325 an hour, with other members of the firm who get involved in the probe billing at $400 an hour. The contract does not specify a maximum amount.
The speaker said he hopes to have the entire inquiry wrapped up — including any hearings of the Ethics Committee if it comes to that — before the Legislature returns for its regular session on Jan. 8. He conceded that may not be possible.
“Right now you have member-to-member accusations flying fast and furious,” Mesnard said. But at this point, that’s all they are, so he said the lawmakers are entitled to at least some legal advice on the investigative process at this stage.
“The alternative would be me saying, ‘Sorry, I’m investigating you, now you’ve got to go come up with money out of your pocket because of an accusation,’ ‘’ he said.
“Any organization, if it has folks within the organization accusing others of misconduct, I think they’re going to follow a very similar process,” Mesnard said. “They’re going to do their own investigation. It’s going to involve the attorneys of the business.”
Only if and when the inquiry by the business finds reason to believe someone acted improperly would the obligation to provide legal help to the employee be cut off, he said.
There’s something else behind his decision, as well. “I’m trying to make sure that, on the other side, I’m not liable if they come back and say, ‘You investigated me, you need to pay for my attorneys, you didn’t pay, and now you’re on the hook for the whole thing,’ ‘’ Mesnard said.
The speaker conceded that the inquiry into Shooter, who faces allegations beyond those filed by fellow legislators, “complicates things a bit.” But he said he still believes the best course of action is to provide the 20 hours of legal help to him, too.