PHOENIX — House Speaker J.D. Mesnard launched “multiple investigations” Wednesday into reports of sexual harassment at the Legislature as three lawmakers and a lobbyist came forward with new allegations, naming Rep. Don Shooter as the offender.
The inquiry was triggered by Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican, who had previously said an unnamed legislator harassed her. On Wednesday, she publicly accused Shooter, a Yuma Republican, of multiple incidents stretching over several years.
Ugenti-Rita detailed three specific incidents for Capitol Media Services, including one where she said Shooter, at the time a senator, came to her office, commented about her figure and asked her whether her breasts were real.
She said he showed up at her hotel room with a six-pack of Corona beer when both were at an out-of-state conference; and that in 2011, Shooter said some “very inappropriate things” to her, to the point where she was so unnerved that she decided to write them down.
The decision by Ugenti-Rita to go public triggered others to come forward later Wednesday.
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, filed her own complaint Wednesday against Shooter. She told Capitol Media Services that he approached her during the first week of this year’s legislative session and told her she would be “a nice view to look at.”
“It definitely made me uncomfortable,” she said. But Salman, a first-term lawmaker, said she was unsure enough of herself at the time to report it to anyone.
And Rep. Wenona Benally, D-Window Rock, said she “witnessed Rep. Shooter using suggestive and sexually inappropriate language in my presence” this year.
Separately, the Arizona Capitol Times reported that lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez said Shooter made inappropriate advances, putting his hand on her knee, when she was talking with him at a restaurant about legislation.
Shooter said through a spokeswoman that he would not comment on any of the allegations.
The issue of sex harassment at the Capitol apparently goes beyond Shooter.
House Majority Whip Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said Wednesday she has been “on the receiving end of both unwanted sexual advances by more than one person as well as intimidating behavior and retaliation by another in a position of power in years past.”
“I was able to handle one such situation,” she said. But Townsend said she had to get the top House Republicans to intercede in another.
In both cases, she provided no names.
Townsend also said she has personally witnessed “sexist comments and maltreatment” of Ugenti-Rita, though not by Shooter.
Mesnard’s inquiry will not end there.
Shooter, in a response to Ugenti-Rita’s comments, made his own statement questioning the propriety of a relationship she and a House staffer started years ago.
That relationship effectively was a little-guarded secret, with even the speaker being aware of the situation. But now that Shooter has raised the issue, it has to be investigated, said Mesnard press aide Matt Specht.
Ugenti-Rita would not comment on Shooter’s complaint.
Her initial allegations in late October — before she named Shooter — came on the heels of national publicity about sexual harassment and abuse allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The Weinstein news story led to a flood of complaints against other alleged harassers in various professions.
As to the decision to name Shooter, Ugenti-Rita acknowledged that the incidents are not new. But she said this seemed to be the right time to go public.
“I knew that there were other women out there,” she said. “And I knew that I had a responsibility to do something about it, for myself and for others.”
Mesnard said in a prepared statement: “All allegations of sexual harassment will be taken seriously in the House. A bipartisan team of investigators will be conducting thorough reviews of all allegations made.”
He promised the inquiry will expand “if more information is gathered.”
Townsend noted that Mesnard, in the wake of Ugenti-Rita’s initial complaints — before she named names — put a written policy in place last week to deal with allegations of harassment. But she said more may be needed.
“It could definitely be fortified and made better in an effort to prevent such behavior,” she said. In fact, Townsend said she is crafting legislation to put any strengthened policy into law.
Some of the allegations against Shooter date to when he was a senator from 2011 to 2016.
But Senate President Steve Yarbrough said his chamber won’t conduct its own probe. He said the Senate’s power to discipline Shooter — if he is guilty of anything — ended when he ceased being a member of that chamber. Shooter has been in the House since January.
Gov. Doug Ducey pointed out Wednesday afternoon that the executive branch of government, including his office, has its own policies.
“There’s zero tolerance of sexual harassment,” he said “It has no place in the workplace, whether you’re in the public sector or the private sector.”
Ducey noted that the Legislature is a separate and co-equal branch of government, with his office — and executive department policies — having no sway over what happens in the chambers or to their members.
The governor said he supports Mesnard’s decision to investigate.
“Let’s get the facts, and they can conduct next steps,” he said.
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