AZ leg­is­la­tors still lack rules for con­duct

In­ac­tion comes de­spite year of sex­ual scan­dals

The Arizona Republic - - Front Page - Dustin Gar­diner

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.”

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