State Rep. Don Shooter suspended amid alleged sexist comments, complaints
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 ever-expanding list of allegations of sexual harassment against the Yuma Republican. Most recently, Mi-Ai Parrish, publisher of the Arizona Republic, said Friday that Shooter last year made a sexist and racist comment while she and her attorney were in his office.
Mesnard, in a prepared statement, said Shooter will not only lose his chairmanship while a special House committee investigates the charges against him.
“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,” the speaker said. That leaves him 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 a violation of House rules has occurred and what punishment, if any, should be imposed. That could range from censure to expulsion, the latter requiring a two-thirds vote of the 60 members.
The decision to remove Shooter — or anyone — as chair of a committee 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 Friday to comment on the action.
Mesnard conceded that the sudden flood of allegations against Shooter and others perhaps 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.”
Mesnard 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.” And he said things will change.
“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.
Mesnard said what happens going forward depends on the findings of a panel of seven House staffers he appointed 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 immediately.
“These are deeply disturbing allegations,” Taylor said. “And it is behavior that does not comport with the way elected officials ought to behave.”
And Taylor said that if Shooter does not quit and is not expelled from the House, there is “a high degree of certainty” that his organization will not support him for another two-year term.
At a hastily called press conference Friday, Mesnard acknowledged that he was aware when he named Shooter to chair the committee in January that the Yuma Republican had a self-proclaimed reputation as someone whose actions and words might raise questions. Mesnard said that came up when Shooter earlier this year 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,” the speaker said. “I think he acknowledged that sometimes, in his attempts to be playful, he might walk a line. My admonishment to him was, ‘Don’t even get close to that line.’”
The allegations, Mesnard said Friday, are serious.
Some date as far as 2011 when he was first elected to the state Senate. Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, detailed several, including asking her about whether her breasts were real, showing up with a six-pack of beer at her hotel room door, and saying he wants to be with her while telling her he was “a very powerful senator.”
But there also have been more recent alleged 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.’”
And Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, also a first-term lawmaker, said Shooter made comments to her early this year that she would be “a nice view to look at.”
Separately, lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez charged that Shooter touched her knee at a dinner where she and a colleague were meeting with him about some legislation. And there are complaints of improper remarks by Shooter from two other unnamed lobbyists.
There also were allegations of sexist remarks by a former Arizona Capitol Times intern.
The most recent complaint came in the form of a column by Parrish about a meeting she and her attorney had with Shooter last year to discuss pending legislation that affected newspapers. According to Parrish, Shooter said he is an independent thinker and said he had done everything on his “bucket list,” with one exception. When she asked Shooter what that was, he responded, “those Asian twins in Mexico.”
Parrish, who is Korean-American, wrote that this was “a demeaning, sexual and racial comment to me in his office, in front of my attorney.”
“That’s not right,” she wrote, “and that’s the truth.”
Mesnard said the special panel also is looking into complaints against Ugenti-Rita by Shooter. While the speaker was not providing specifics, Shooter said in an earlier statement that saying she had “a very public affair” with a House staffer while she was still married, and that she made a joke about masturbation during a committee hearing.
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.