Probe finds Arizona lawmaker broke sex harassment rules

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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

An Arizona House lawmaker violated the chamber's sexual harassment policies and has been permanently removed from all committee assignments, the House speaker announced Tuesday.

[RAW VIDEO: News conference about sexual harassment claims]

The move involving Republican Rep. Don Shooter of Yuma came months after a female lawmaker said he harassed her and many other women then complained about his actions.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, also a Republican, said he would seek to have Shooter formally censured by the full House. In addition, he wants to launch a formal House human resources department and ban drinking on House property.

A formal censure is the most severe punishment a House member can face short of expulsion, Mesnard said. He called it a "proportionate response" to Shooter's actions, which he said involved "crude jokes and disgusting comments to people" but not sexual assault.

He expects a formal House vote Thursday on the censure proposal. Only a simple majority vote is needed, while a 2/3 vote is needed for expulsion.

In the weeks after the October allegation by Republican Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the then-publisher of the Arizona Republic newspaper and a number of other women said Shooter subjected them to inappropriate sexual comments or actions.

The investigation substantiated some of the allegations.

[RELATED: Powerful lawmaker accused of sexual harassment at AZ State Capitol]

"There is credible evidence Rep. Shooter has violated (House policy) and by his repeated pervasive conduct has created a hostile work environment for his colleagues and those with business before the Legislature," the report commissioned by Mesnard and written by an outside law firm concluded.

Shooter has denied sexual harassment but acknowledged he had made "jarring, insensitive and demeaning" comments. He asked for the investigation after Ugenti-Rita accused him of propositioning her.

In a statement, Shooter said he was reviewing the report and thanked the investigators and his colleagues for their professionalism.

"This has been a humbling and eye-opening experience for me," Shooter said. "I look forward to working to repair relationships and serving my constituents and our great State."

The same day Mesnard announced the investigation, then-Arizona Republic Publisher Mi-Ai Parrish wrote in a column online that Shooter told her during a 2016 meeting in his office that he had done everything on his "bucket list," except for "those Asian twins in Mexico." Parrish is Asian-American.

Sexual harassment rocketed to the fore of the national conversation in the wake of allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in early October. Since then, other lawmakers, entertainment figures, businesspeople and media leaders have been accused of sexual harassment.

Lawmakers facing such complaints in other states have stepped down, been removed from assignments or otherwise disciplined.

"I had called for Rep. Shooter to resign months ago when this first come out, I think that would have been the right thing to do for the people he represent and the right thing to do for the legislature," said Democratic state Senator Katie Hobbs.

Mesnard said his decision not to seek expulsion was a judgment call, and some will believe it is too harsh or too timid a punishment. He said any new allegations would force his hand.

"If there is any more misconduct in this sort of way I will absolutely move for expulsion," he said.

Shooter wielded considerable power as head of the House Appropriations Committee before Mesnard removed him from that role in November. He was known around the Capitol as a politically incorrect jokester who threw booze-laden parties in his office on the last day of legislative sessions.

The ban on drinking appears to have been prompted by the behavior.

Gov. Doug Ducey's office offered this response about the report.

Our office is reviewing the report in detail, but the governor has made it clear -- there is no room for sexual harassment at the state Capitol or anywhere else.

 This all began to come to light after AZ Family's political reporter Dennis Welch unveiled allegations against Shooter.

On Tuesday, Shooter responded to the report. In a statement, he says:

“I am reviewing the report released by Speaker Mesnard today in connection with the investigation I requested.  Although I have not finished reading it, I want to thank my colleagues for their patience and professionalism during this process.”

“I also want to thank the investigators, Craig Morgan and Lindsay Hesketh from the law firm Sherman & Howard.  With so much at stake for so many, their task was no doubt challenging.  I appreciate the seriousness with which they approached their assignment.”

“This has been a humbling and eye-opening experience for me.  I look forward to working to repair relationships and serving my constituents and our great State.”

“I will have no further comment.  Thank you.”
 

[READ Full report HERE]

The investigation was handled by an outside law firm, Sherman & Howard. Craig Morgan, the lead counsel in the investigation, handled the interviews with those alleging misbehavior, and those who witnessed it. 

Morgan says shooter was the one to initially request the investigation, and said he participated from start to finish. He says he's confident his findings are accurate and fair. 

"The one thing about this investigation, that iI found patricularly enlightening, is how quick people were at least publically to just jump to the conclusion that something had happened. I call it the 'Scarlet Hashtag' now in 2018," said Morgan. 

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[SPECIAL SECTION: Arizona Politics]

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Copyright 2018 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.