Arizona lawmaker cites sexual harassment by male colleagues

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(Source: Arizona Capitol Television) (Source: Arizona Capitol Television)

Prompted by allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, a four-term Arizona legislator has joined a growing chorus of women going public about sexual harassment they encountered from men in the workplace.

Republican Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita of Scottsdale said in a Facebook post that she encountered harassment soon after taking office in early 2011.

"Almost immediately upon my arrival to the Capitol, I experienced unwanted sexual advances and lewd and suggestive comments regarding my body and appearance from male colleagues," she wrote. "Unfortunately, what I thought would be a professional and respectful work environment was not the reality I was experiencing."

Ugenti-Rita said she was sharing her experiences amid the national discussion of sexual harassment in hopes of encouraging others to help address sexual and workplace harassment.

"I'm not going to tolerate that down there anymore, and I hope that me coming out and sharing my experience motivates people to do the same, ugenti-Rita told Arizona's Family.

Ugenti-Rita's post did not identify her harassers. But she said she contacted House leaders after the behavior became more brazen. She said they were understanding but could not do much because they were not employers of fellow lawmakers.

She did not return telephone seeking additional details.

Kirk Adams was House speaker during Ugenti-Rita's first four months in office and now is chief of staff for Gov. Doug Ducey. He said he believes Ugenti-Rita when she said she reached out to leadership to discuss the issue but did not recall the content or timing of conversation.

"Sexual harassment of any kind is unacceptable," he said. "I'm supportive of her as she tries to bring reform to the process."

Andy Tobin, who was majority leader and then became speaker when Adams stepped down in April 2011, said Ugenti-Rita never approached him with any complaints about sexual harassment. He said he would have taken strong action if he had been told about it.

"I'm pretty intolerant of that stuff," Tobin said. "I've got three daughters and a wife and I don't put up with anything like that at all."

Tobin said Ugenti-Rita was a new mother when she arrived in the House and he made sure she had a private place in his office area where she could nurse her baby. He also named her as a committee chair, something rare for a freshman.

Tobin said he knew she struggled with the "political warfare" of being a committee chair, where decisions on proposed legislation can lead to strong political pressure or backlash.

"If there were issues that occurred that should have been handled better I certainly feel bad about that," he said.

Tobin is now a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission.

A call seeking comment from now-Sen. Debbie Lesko, who was majority whip in 2011, was not immediately returned.

Ugenti-Rita said she succeeded in mostly overcoming the harassment in the House, but believed she still faced gender-based discrimination in the Senate.

She urged the leaders in both chambers and other members to create a formal process allowing people to raise harassment issues.

Another representative is also speaking out.

Dr. Randy Friese believes the House missed an opportunity to correct these behaviors months ago. 

Friese says he learned of an inappropriate exchange between two other members back in March.

He suggested the House bring in an outside expert to hold sensitivity training for everyone. But he says his idea was shot down. 

"We need to respect each other as professionals and we need to respect each other as adults," said Friese. " And I think going to sexual comments is way too far. The line should be way short of that." 

In light of Ugenti-Rita's claims, Friese says he plans to bring up his proposal again in the coming weeks. 

Ugenti-Rita has is the past come under fire for a graphic comment made during a public meeting back in 2012. 

"Does that make it right? Does that make it so it's open season to sexually harass somebody?" asked Ugenti-Rita. "I don't think it does." 

Term limits bar Ugenti-Rita from running for re-election to the House next year, but she's running for a Senate seat.

[ONLINE: Michelle Ugenti-Rita's Facebook post about sexual harassment]

[YouTube: Rep. Michelle Ugenti profile]


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