AZ legislators still lack rules for conduct
Inaction comes despite year of sexual scandals
It was early 2018, and the cloud of sexual scandals and allegations hanging over the Arizona Legislature was heavy.
Former Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, had just been expelled over accusations he harassed multiple women with lewd gestures and words — the first expulsion in 27 years. The bid for Congress by former state Sen. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, was imploding with revelations of flirtatious text messages and photos exchanged with a junior-level Senate staffer.
Whispers about other lawmakers also spread through the Capitol.
That’s when the Legislature’s top two leaders decided it was time to act, they said, for the public’s sake.
State Senate President Steve Yarbrough and House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, both R-Chandler, said they would appoint a bipartisan committee to write a code of conduct with rules outlining behavior expected of lawmakers.
But nearly a year later, no such rules for lawmakers have seen the light of day, even with the next group of 90 legislators set to take office Monday.
The committee Yarbrough and Mesnard talked about creating never even held a meeting.
“We were waiting and waiting and waiting to be told when the meeting was going to happen,” said House Assistant Minority Leader Randy Friese, D-Tucson, who was asked to help draft the rules. “And then, of course, it didn’t.”
There’s also no indication that the new Legislature, after it’s seated this week, will move quickly to create a code of conduct for itself.
Diane Brown, executive director of the Arizona Public Interest Research Group, an open-government advocacy group, said lawmakers should be proactive and make rules so the caliber of expected behavior is clear.
That way, she said, they aren’t just reacting when something goes wrong, but possibly preventing such episodes from repeating.
“Scandals often have a limited shelf life for many members of the public,” Brown said. “However, when similar scandals arrive time after time, it really is incumbent on elected officials to fix the root problem.”
Why didn’t lawmakers act?
The biggest roadblock appears to have been in the state Senate, where some members apparently weren’t keen on the idea of imposing new rules on themselves.
“There was not necessarily a great deal of enthusiasm for the exercise,” Yarbrough told The Arizona Republic. “It just sort of got moved to the back burner. If that’s a shortcoming or a failing, then that’s my responsibility.”
He said the subject also got shelved during last spring’s series of unusual events. That’s when a sea of teachers with the #RedForEd movement stormed the Capitol in protests over school funding.
Meanwhile, in the House, Mesnard said by the time it was clear the Senate wouldn’t act, there wasn’t time to do something before lawmakers adjourned on May 4. They needed to adopt any new rules while the Legislature was in session. “So, it just kind of faded into the background,” he said.
The House’s inaction also was contrary to its own policies. In the wake of Shooter’s ouster, members created a rule that required them to adopt a code of conduct.
Mesnard said he has recently worked with staff from both parties to write a draft code of conduct that would apply to House employees. He said that could provide a blueprint — if lawmakers will consider it.
It’s now up to incoming House Speaker-elect Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and Senate President-elect Karen Fann, R-Prescott, to decide whether to go there.
Bowers said he thinks the Legislature should have some sort of code, but he’s apprehensive. He said he briefly reviewed Mesnard’s draft and hasn’t decided whether to adopt it for staff.
He’s also apprehensive about applying it to lawmakers.
“I don’t know about instituting a onesize-fits-all code,” Bowers said. “I don’t want to prescribe every little action around this place. It might get busy.”
The House speaker and Senate president have the sole authority to adopt conduct rules that apply to staffers in their chambers. But lawmakers would also need to pass any rules that apply to them.
Fann didn’t respond to a request for comment about the issue and hasn’t signaled that she plans to pursue it.
Democratic leaders, including Friese and incoming Senate Minority Leader David Bradley, D-Tucson, said their caucuses are eager to adopt a code of conduct, if Republican leadership moves.
“We should be held to a very high standard,” Bradley said, adding that the rules can remind members to have “simple, common decency.”
Lawmakers behaving badly
Although lawmakers didn’t follow through on their commitment to adopt behavioral rules in their 2018 session, there’s been no shortage of examples of lawmakers behaving badly in the intervening months:
❚ Last month, Rep. David Cook was arrested and charged with drunken driving, and according to the police report, he told one highway trooper, “You’ll get yours,” and told another, “Do you know what you’re doing, son?”
Cook, R-Globe, was charged with an extreme DUI, given that his blood alcohol level was allegedly nearly twice the legal limit. If convicted, he could face a 30-day jail sentence. His next court date is scheduled for Jan. 23.
Cook apologized in a Facebook post: “No lunch, no dinner, and some drinks with friends sounds harmless enough, but get behind the wheel and try to drive home and you’re taking a chance you just shouldn’t take,” he wrote.
Bowers removed him from the Public Safety Committee and disbanded another committee he was supposed to lead.
❚ Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, made headlines worldwide in June when he was filmed saying immigration poses an “existential threat” to America, adding that “there aren’t enough white kids to go around” in Arizona public schools.
He continued to make waves throughout the year with his controversial comments and writings about race. Many leaders, including Gov. Doug Ducey, called for his resignation.
Stringer blamed the controversy on media outlets that have “misreported” his statements.
He said he has no intention of resigning given that he was re-elected in November by a wide margin.
Bowers removed Stringer from all committees except one.
❚ Former Rep. Paul Mosley, R-Lake Havasu City, was widely criticized for evoking legislative immunity to avoid a speeding ticket last March.
Mosley was pulled over for reportedly driving up to 97 mph in a 55 mph. During the traffic stop. Mosley bragged he sometimes drives up to 140 mph in an interaction captured on police bodycamera video.
He told the La Paz County sheriff ’s deputy that “legislative immunity” prevents him from getting a speeding ticket. Lawmakers in Arizona, under the state’s legislative-immunity rule, generally cannot be arrested while the Legislature is in session.
After the video was publicly released in July, Mosley was charged with excessive speeding. He lost his August primary election after opponents attacked him over the episode.
Mosley publicly apologized, saying he was rushing home to see his family. He said his comments about driving more than 100 mph were jokes and that the video didn’t capture the first half of the traffic stop, in which he apologized to the officer.
A need to repair public trust
Mesnard said that given those incidents and Shooter’s expulsion, he thinks new rules are necessary to help ensure voters have confidence in the Legislature.
“It’s not like these things have just gone by with no consequences,” he said. “That being said, I tend to think whatever we can do to strengthen the public’s trust in the legislative branch is healthy.”
The House has declined to release copies of the draft code of conduct for legislative staff members.
Mesnard said a key piece of any code might address relationships between lawmakers and staffers.
The Legislature currently has no formal policies banning romantic relationships between elected officials and their often-younger staff members, who can feel pressure to reciprocate flirtatious behavior.
Last session, several lawmakers called for the creation of such policies after the scandal over Montenegro’s text messages and other allegations of lawmaker-staffer relations.
Montenegro described initial accounts of the cyberaffair as “false tabloid trash” but later admitted the texts were his. He lost a special congressional election partly because of the controversy.
Several lawmakers who spoke with The Republic said a code of conduct must reinforce good behavior without demonizing people’s private lives or beliefs.
“When you start judging everyone’s personal lives, I think you’re going down a slippery slope,” said state Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert. “And I think we have to be careful that we’re not doing that.”
Both legislative chambers already have policies prohibiting sexual harassment. They also have rules governing financial conflicts of interest, an area also loosely governed by state law.
A code of conduct could outline general expectations of behavior, including how lawmakers interact with each other, staff and constituents.
It’s unclear what areas of behavior it might address because no potential drafts have been released. Possible penalties for violating the code also are unclear.
Concerns about ‘fair’ process
Gretchen Jacobs, a well-known lobbyist and a close friend of Shooter, said she’s heard some lawmakers are reluctant to address the code of conduct after his expulsion.
Shooter is preparing to sue the state because he alleges the process used to
oust him was rigged and lacked “due process.” The House voted 56-3 to expel him after an outside law firm found “credible evidence” he harassed at least seven women.
Jacobs said his removal without an ethics hearing — in which complaints about lawmaker behavior are typically addressed — gave many members of the Legislature heartburn and they don’t want to normalize that process.
“Even someone accused of beating up his girlfriend in public and another person recorded accepting bribes were given the courtesy of a hearing,” Jacobs said, referring to a scandal involving former state Sen. Scott Bundgaard, R-Glendale, and another involving state lawmakers who were prosecuted for corruption in the early 1990s.
Mesnard said Shooter’s removal didn’t involve an ethics hearing, in part, because he wanted to avoid a “big public spectacle” for the victims who came forwarded as witnesses.
“I don’t know who would come forward in that type of situation,” he said.
Still, a few lawmakers said they prefer all accusations are handled through an ethics proceeding. Another allegation involving state House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, went to the ethics committee and was dismissed outright.
“I didn’t feel that they treated all cases fairly,” said Rep. Regina Cobb, RKingman. “My only complaint was that they did not have the same process for everybody.”
Cobb, who voted to expel Shooter, said she supports adopting a code of conduct as long as all allegations against lawmakers go through a standard vetting. “If we’re going to do it, do it correctly,” she added, referring to a process that would involve the ethics committee.
Grantham, who also voted to oust Shooter, agreed, saying, “I think the internal process should be allowed to work.”
He said more rules are a good idea because they would prevent lawmakers from claiming they didn’t know something was out of line. But, he said, expulsion should be off the table, except in the rarest of cases.
“These people work for the voters of their district,” Grantham said. “And that, ultimately, would be the best place for them to be held accountable.”