PHOENIX — Embattled state Rep. Don Shooter was suspended Friday from his position as chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
The move by House Speaker J.D. Mesnard came amid an expanding list of allegations of sexual harassment against Shooter, a Yuma Republican. Most recently, Mi-Ai Parrish, publisher of the Arizona Republic, said Friday that Shooter made a sexist and racist comment last year while she and her attorney were in his office discussing legislation.
Shooter will lose his chairmanship while a special House committee investigates the allegations lodged against him in the last two weeks by three lawmakers, three lobbyists and a journalist, in addition to the publisher.
“He will not be taking any budgetary meetings, chairing hearings, or engaged in any budget discussion or any duties related to Appropriations until the investigation has concluded,” Mesnard said in a prepared statement.
That leaves Shooter out of the process when House and Senate GOP leaders prepare a nearly $10 billion spending plan ahead of the new legislative session that begins in January.
Mesnard said Shooter will receive “a fair, thorough investigation into his behavior” before any decisions are made about whether House rules were violated and what discipline, if any, should be imposed. That could range from a censure to expulsion, the latter requiring a two-thirds vote of the 60 members.
The decision to remove a committee chair is totally within the purview of the speaker. And Mesnard said it should not be seen as punishment but instead as in the best interests of the legislative process.
“I’m not casting judgment on Mr. Shooter at this time,” he said. “I don’t believe he can properly fulfill his obligations as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee until that investigation has concluded.”
Mesnard said he spoke with Shooter ahead of Friday’s announcement.
“I’m not going to speak for him,” he said.
“He probably doesn’t feel like much of this is fair,” Mesnard continued. “But I think he understands from a process standpoint this is necessary, even if he’s not happy about it.”
Shooter declined comment.
Mesnard conceded that the sudden flood of allegations against Shooter and others, who have not been named, should not be a surprise. “Clearly, we have tolerated things in the past that we shouldn’t have,” Mesnard said. “And people are standing up, and rightly so.”
He said he hopes to address that with ethics training for lawmakers and staff covering “everything from sexual harassment to sexism to quid-pro-quo to appropriate talk on the House floor.”
Things will change, he said. “If there is any suggestion that in the past we may have just rolled our eyes at something or ignored something, we’re going to be much more strict moving forward,” Mesnard said.
What happens going forward depends on the findings of a panel of seven House staffers he appointed Thursday to look into all the allegations, and not just against Shooter.
But while the speaker said he is reserving judgment, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry is not. Spokesman Garrick Taylor said the group, which has backed Shooter in previous elections, thinks he should resign from the Legislature — now.
“These are deeply disturbing allegations,” Taylor said. “And it is behavior that does not comport with the way elected officials ought to behave.” Taylor said if Shooter does not quit and is not expelled from the House, there is “a high degree of certainty” the chamber will not support him for another two-year term.
At a hastily called news conference Friday, Mesnard acknowledged that he was aware when he named Shooter to chair the committee in January that he had a self-proclaimed reputation as someone whose actions and words might raise questions. Mesnard said that came up earlier this year when Shooter suggested he might run for speaker.
“He, in a somewhat playful way, talked about maybe drinking a little bit less, sort of joking in certain ways a little bit less,” Mesnard said.
“I think he acknowledged that sometimes, in his attempts to be playful, he might walk a line,” Mesnard continued. “My admonishment to him was, ‘Don’t even get close to that line.’”
The allegations, Mesnard said Friday, are serious.
Some date to 2011 when he was first elected to the state Senate. Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, detailed several, including Shooter asking her whether her breasts were real, showing up with a six-pack of beer at her hotel room door and saying he wanted to be with her while telling her he was “a very powerful senator.”
There also have been more recent incidents.
Rep. Wenona Benally, R-Window Rock, said she was in the lounge reserved for House members earlier this year when Shooter and another male lawmaker — she did not say who — sat across from her. Benally said Shooter “repeatedly referred to his male genitalia as a ‘gun.’”
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, a first-term lawmaker, said Shooter made comments to her early this year that she would be “a nice view to look at.”
A former Arizona Capitol Times intern also said Shooter made sexually charged comments.
Lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez charged that Shooter touched her knee at a dinner where she and a colleague were meeting with him about legislation.
There are also complaints by two other, unnamed lobbyists that Shooter made improper remarks.
And House Majority Whip Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said she has been the victim of sexual harassment by other lawmakers, though she has not provided any names.
Mesnard said the special panel also is looking into complaints against Ugenti-Rita by Shooter. While Mesnard didn’t provide specifics, Shooter said in an earlier statement that she had “a very public affair” with a House staffer while she was married and that she made a joke about masturbation during a committee hearing. Ugenti-Rita has declined to comment.