Female lawmakers: Suspend leadership duties of 2 women accused of inappropriate relationships

December 1, 2017
Arizona Republic
Dustin Gardiner

Four female members of the Arizona Legislature are calling for two powerful women to be suspended from committee or party-leadership positions after they were accused of inappropriate relationships with House staff members.

The lawmakers have signed a letter calling for Republican state Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Democratic Rep. Rebecca Rios, House minority leader, to be be removed from their posts pending an investigation of allegations against them.

An outside investigator hired by the House is reviewing accusations against Ugenti-Rita and Rios.

The letter comes as a male lawmaker, Rep. Don Shooter, has been suspended from his position as chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee after accusations from multiple women, including Ugenti-RIta, that he had sexually harassed them.

The accusations against Rios and Ugenti-Rita came from lawmakers who had other grievances, not the staff members involved.

The letter states cases of alleged sexual misconduct should be treated equally.

"We believe that the process and policy for addressing these allegations and any resulting accountability should be equal and consistent with respect to all of these individuals," it states.

Four female Republican lawmakers signed the letter, which was delivered to House Speaker J.D. Mesnard Friday morning. Its signatories: Rep. Maria Syms, R-Paradise Valley; Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman; Rep. Becky Nutt, R-Clifton; and Rep. Jill Norgaard, R-Phoenix.

Mesnard, R-Chandler, said Friday he had not determined how to respond to the requests in the letter.

"I’m taking the letter under advisement and taking it a step at a time," he said, adding that he expects the interview portion of the investigations to be complete before the Legislature convenes in January.

Ugenti-Rita didn't respond to requests for comment.

Rios' attorney, Larry Wulkan, issued a statement Friday that in part noted the lawmaker's work on education and health care issues affecting children.

"Yet, four female Republican members have decided to divert attention away from the sexual harassment allegations against their Republican colleague," he wrote. "Allegations against Rep. Rios are based on rumor, speculation and political motivations."

He added that Rios expects a "prompt conclusion" to the investigation.

Avalanche of accusations

The letter is the latest twist in a sexual harassment and misconduct scandal that's loomed over the Arizona Capitol in recent weeks. Accusations against Shooter, Ugenti-Rita and Rios are now the subject of multiple investigations.

In early November, Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, accused Shooter of harassing her after she joined the Legislature. Ugenti-Rita described several instances where, she alleges, Shooter sought a romantic relationship and continued to make advances after she told him they were wrong.

At least six other women had since publicly accused Shooter of making sexually charged comments, touching them inappropriately or making unwanted advances. Some instances are alleged to have occurred when women were speaking with him in his official capacity as appropriations chairman.

Mi-Ai Parrish, president and publisher of The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com, is one of the women who complained about Shooter's behavior. She said he made a sexually inappropriate comment to her.

Shooter has denied any wrongdoing.

Shooter responded to Ugenti-Rita by accusing her of having a sexual relationship with a legislative staff member and making a comment about masturbation to another lawmaker in a public hearing, which was recorded on video.

Ugenti-Rita did not respond to the details of Shooter's later statement but reaffirmed her accusations against him.

"I stand by what I said," she wrote in a text message in early November.

Mesnard announced that allegations against Shooter, as well as those against Ugenti-Rita, would be investigated.

Accusations of sexual misconduct have also riled the Democratic caucus in the House. In mid-November, Rep. Ray Martinez, D-Phoenix, sent a complaint to the House Ethics Committee alleging that Rios had a sexual relationship with a security staffer for the chamber.

Martinez wrote that the staffer later was forced to resign. In his complaint, Martinez emphasized that he was upset because Rios hasn't endorsed him for re-election. He has provided no evidence for his accusation that she had a relationship with a staffer.

Rios responded in a statement, saying she wouldn't "dignify these untrue allegations with a response." She said Martinez is "trying to use a personal family tragedy to attack and harass me."

Letter demands 'equal' process

The four female Republican lawmakers demand in their letter that Ugenti-Rita and Rios be treated the same as Shooter and be suspended from their respective leadership roles, pending the results of the House's investigation.

Mesnard has the power to suspend Ugenti-Rita as chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Only the Democratic caucus has the authority to suspend Rios as minority leader in the House. There is no indication that members of Rios' party have moved to strip her of leadership duties.

In their letter, the four lawmakers said the chamber should have zero tolerance for sexual misconduct in any form.

"House representatives serve the public and should not abuse their position by exerting power and influence over others, especially through sexual misconduct," they wrote. "Sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual relations with House staff should not be tolerated under any circumstance."

Their letter also requests that, if allegations of misconduct are verified by the House investigation, leadership in the chamber discipline the perpetrators, including with possible expulsion.

Assistant Minority Leader Randall Friese, D-Tucson, defended Rios in a released statement.

"Beyond politics I do not understand why Rep. Rios was included in this letter," Friese said. "The speaker does not have authority over the status of our caucus leadership."