PHOENIX — Claiming it's a matter of security, the state House on Thursday banned reporters from the floor who would not consent to extensive background checks.
Several media organizations who routinely cover the Legislature, including the Associated Press, the Arizona Republic, the Capitol Times and Capitol Media Services were given until Thursday morning to agree to let House staffers check not just criminal and civil histories but also prior addresses and even driving records.
House officials said similar consents would be required of any journalist who is even at the Capitol for a day to cover specific local issues.
But the real sticking point came when the House leadership revealed a list of specific prior offenses which would disqualify a reporter from having the floor privileges that have been available for at least 34 years, if not longer. These include any felony within the past decade and any misdemeanor within the last five years, excluding drunk driving and other traffic laws.
It does allow exceptions but not for crimes ranging from violence, assault, rape, extortion, bribery and eavesdropping to trespass.
Part of what makes that last crime of note is that Hank Stephenson, a Capitol Times reporter, has a conviction of second degree trespass, the result of what was described as a bar fight. And it was Stephenson who wrote an extensive story about Speaker of the House David Gowan's travel's at state expense, much of it in the congressional district where he wants to get elected.
Gowan eventually had to refund the House more than $12,000.
Ginger Lamb, the paper's publisher, called the timing of the speaker's action "peculiar.''
"This new protocol would have an adverse effect on a member of our reporting team that has written several stories that are critical of the speaker's leadership,'' she said in a prepared statement. "I would hope this is coincidence, but past experience leads me to believe otherwise.''
The speaker denied the policy has anything to do with any specific reporter and any specific story. Instead, he said it stems from a disturbance last week in the House gallery by protesters.
The gallery is a public area which does not require badge access. The protests followed a meeting of the House Elections Committee over problems with the March 22 presidential primary, a meeting at which many were denied a chance to speak.
And Gowan said it also has nothing to do with the media at all, saying the policy covers covered all "non-employees'' who have access through key cards to the House floor "so that we know who people are, come in, so that our members are protected.''
"I don't understand the crisis here,'' he said.
But House Counsel Robert Ellman, in a March 31 memo to Gowan obtained by Capitol Media Services, said "non-employee badge holders are generally if not exclusively law enforcement officers and reporters.''
Gowan conceded under questioning that in the last 34 years there has never been an incident involving a reporter granted floor access. But the speaker said that's irrelevant.
"There had never been an attack on 9/11 either, like that occurred either, before on our shore,'' he said. "But it did.''
And he repeated his concerns about the protests, all of which occurred in non-secure areas.
"You got people locking themselves to doors,'' Gowan said. "You got somebody up here (in the gallery) who held onto a seat, wouldn't even let the troopers pull him out.''
And he said other protesters were "collapsing'' on the troopers.
"That's pretty scary,'' Gowan said.
The lockout of media from the floor occurred after two days of negotiations between Ellman and attorneys for media organizations.
The original request made Monday by Stephanie Grisham, publicist for the House majority was for not only criminal and civil background checks but also that reporters give permission for House staffers to ask any individual or corporation, including but not limited to current and former employers, for any and all records and documents related to that person.
Ellman agreed to drop that requirement, but not the rest of it.