State Watch

In states, legislators face flood of harassment allegations

The powerful chairman of the Arizona state House Appropriations Committee was suspended from his post on Friday after eight women accused him of inappropriate sexual advances.

The lawmaker, Rep. Don Shooter (R), is one of more than a dozen state legislators who face allegations of sexual harassment or improper behavior in capitals across the country, as female lawmakers, lobbyists and staff increasingly speak up about what many call a pervasive culture of mistreatment.

{mosads}The allegations cross party and state lines, targeting some of the most powerful men in state government, from Kentucky’s House Speaker to the chairmen of prominent committees in Florida and Minnesota.

And many of the women who have made their accusations public have strongly hinted that other legislators will be implicated in the coming days or weeks.

In just the last few weeks, some legislative leaders have implemented new training requirements or created new avenues for those who have been harassed to make formal complaints. Others have launched investigations into colleagues accused of inappropriate behavior, or stripped the accused of leadership posts.

But other states have been slower to act: Despite the multiple allegations, Arizona House Speaker J.D. Mesnard (R) did not suspend Shooter until several hours after The Hill contacted his office for a response to criticism from a fellow Republican lawmaker who has alleged Shooter harassed her.

That lawmaker, state Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R), is one of three legislators to publicly accuse Shooter of harassment. State Reps. Wenona Benally (D) and Athena Salman (D) have also made public allegations against him.

Ugenti-Rita said she had been harassed by Shooter for years. She said that in 2011, Shooter, then a state senator, told her he was in love with her. At a work conference, he brought a six-pack of beer to her hotel room, uninvited. And, Ugenti-Rita said, he left a bottle of tequila in her office as a Christmas present, along with a note, which she still has.

Ugenti-Rita repeatedly brought her allegations to House leadership, she told The Hill.

“The public has been very supportive. I’m a bit disappointed with leadership,” Ugenti-Rita told The Hill in an interview Friday morning. “I haven’t heard from them, from the Speaker. And there seems to be overwhelming evidence that Don Shooter has done and said inappropriate things, yet I feel like my leadership’s paralyzed, and I don’t know what’s going on.”

After The Hill asked Mesnard’s office for a reaction to Ugenti-Rita’s comments, Mesnard called her to tell her of his decision to suspend Shooter.

“I have suspended Representative Shooter’s responsibilities as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee pending the results of the investigation into the allegations against him,” Mesnard said in a statement. “Representative Shooter is entitled to — and will receive — a fair and thorough investigation into his behavior before the House determines what action is needed, but I don’t believe he can properly fulfill his obligations as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee until that investigation has concluded.”

Shooter did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He has told local news outlets he denies Ugenti-Rita’s claims, though he has not responded to the other seven women who have accused him of improper behavior.

In other states, allegations of harassment have led to swift consequences. Kentucky House Speaker Jeff Hoover (R) resigned his leadership post, though he remains in office, after revelations he settled a sexual harassment claim brought by one of his employees.

Three other Kentucky legislators were also implicated in the suit, including the co-chairman of the Public Pension Oversight Board. That lawmaker, state Rep. Brian Linder (R), has been removed from his post, pending a House investigation into the legislators’ behavior.

Illinois state Sen. Ira Silverstein (D) was stripped of his leadership position as majority caucus chairman — and the $20,000 yearly stipend that came with it — after a victim’s rights advocate accused him in a public hearing of inappropriate and unwanted contact.

In the days after the allegations, the state legislature appointed a former U.S. attorney to serve as an interim inspector general, in part to investigate complaints of sexual harassment.

Ohio state Sen. Cliff Hite (R) resigned last month after admitting to inappropriate behavior toward a state employee. Oregon state Sen. Jeff Kruse (R) was reprimanded after a Democratic colleague accused him of inappropriately touching her.

Minnesota Democrats have urged state Sen. Dan Schoen (D) to quit after the MinnPost reported the first-term lawmaker had made advances toward and even physically grabbed women. Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R) removed state Rep. Tony Cornish (R) from his post as chairman of the House Public Safety Committee after two women accused him of misconduct.

Florida’s Senate is investigating state Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Latvala (R) over half a dozen claims he sexually harassed or assaulted legislative aides and lobbyists. Latvala on Thursday released a sworn affidavit and a polygraph test denying the charges.

Some legislators have been accused of inappropriate behavior before or after their lawmaking careers. In California, the Los Angeles Times reported Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D) had been disciplined for allegedly groping a fellow staffer when he worked in the legislature, years before he won election to his own seat.

In Washington, four women said former state Rep. Brendan Williams (D) harassed or assaulted them when he was in office. Williams is no longer a legislator.

Legislators, staff and lobbyists said the revelations about film producer Harvey Weinstein have spurred women in state capitals to report their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault.

“The whole culture of the inequality in power, any time you have that it is ripe for these things to happen,” California Assemblywoman Susan Eggman (D) told The Hill. A new committee in Sacramento will hold hearings this month on how to address the culture of harassment.

Tags Arizona Kentucky Minnesota Oregon Sexual harassment

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video