Arizona lawmaker discusses sexual harassment investigations at state capitol

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A special House panel has been hired by the Arizona House of Representatives to investigate sexual harassment allegations against Rep. Don Shooter.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard appointed the panel earlier this month and says this is the best course of action to look into the complaints made against Shooter. In addition to investigating the allegations made against Rep. Shooter, the panel plans to look into Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita. Ugenti-Rita was the first woman to come out against Shooter, who adamantly denied the accusations made against him by his fellow state legislator.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on Arizona Horizon, we'll hear from the speaker of the house about sexual harassment allegations against a state lawmaker. Also tonight: the latest Arizona town hall recommends a tax-hike to better fund education. And we'll look at the challenges of getting electric power on the Navajo nation. Those stories next, on Arizona Horizon.

Arizona "Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to Arizona Horizon. I'm Ted Simons. Arizona's jobless rate is at its lowest level since December of 2007. The numbers for last month show unemployment down to 4.5-percent, a drop of 2-tenths of a percent. The state's jobless rate is still above the national average of 4.1-percent and the state's job growth for was below average for the month. Still, the Arizona office of economic opportunity reports that 8-of-11-sectors added jobs, led by the professional and business services category. Arizona representative don shooter continues to face multiple allegations of sexual harassment. The house has retained an attorney to lead an investigation into the claims. Joining us now is the "speaker" of the house, J.D. Mesnard. Good to see you again. What is going on down there? What in the world is going on?

J.D. Mesnard: It is something you are seeing across the country. Folks coming forward, sharing their stories about sexual harassment and there have been a number of allegations that have been brought forward, mostly aimed at representative Don Shooter. We are going to investigate those and try to get to the bottom of what has been happening and take it step by step as to how to handle.

Ted Simons: It started with the representative naming shooter. Initially she said shooter was quote one of them. Are there others?

J.D. Mesnard: She hasn't come out and I have been finding out through the press, by the way, she hasn't come out with other names. She has talked about things. Members talk to me in private and I am not at liberty to share and that raises complexity to the issue. She has not given me specifics. If she choses to and wants to pursue it we would take it there.

Ted Simons: she said she went to house leadership on this initially and nothing was done. Did she go to you?

J.D. Mesnard: I think she is referring to her early years. I think a lot of what she is referring to happened in the early years. That was before my time.

Ted Simons: you were not aware of her concerns when you took over as speaker?

J.D. Mesnard: No, I was not. And I told her I would be happy to intervene and stop if there is something inappropriate happening. I believe in treating everybody with respect. Men should be treating women like ladies and be courteous and respectful. Any time there is an issue I hope members come here.

Ted Simons: Representative shooter apologized, then took it back and then accused the representative of inappropriate behavior and inappropriate relationship. Your thoughts?

J.D. Mesnard: My thoughts are it is an accusation against her. I am trying to maintain objectivity and take it a step at a time.

Ted Simons: Others came forward regarding representative shooter. Are others coming forward regarding other lawmakers?

J.D. Mesnard: Not so far. Well, there was a recent allegation made about the democratic leader in the house. So there are people pointing fingers. I think there is a greater sensitivity which in some ways is good and if we take it too far it could be bad but we want to crackdown on inappropriate behavior in the house. Hopefully these investigations and conversations lead to a better environment.

Ted Simons: The majority whip Townsend said she saw this behavior personally and it wasn't shooter doing the mistreatment. What do you know about that?

J.D. Mesnard: I don't know anything. I know what she said which was pretty vague and when we approached her about doing an investigation she didn't want to pursue the matter. So she hasn't give me any more information on that.

Ted Simons: there is new anti-harassment policy out there. What changes?

J.D. Mesnard: You know, I don't know a whole lot is different but now people are aware. I think one of the criticisms is folks didn't know where to go. They are getting new training but there is a lot coming at you. We want to go all out there. Where you go, what is not acceptable, how an investigation would unfold. Now we are following through on that policy with we will adjust and improve as necessary. We want a healthy anti-harassment policy.

Ted Simons: How will this investigation unfold? Obviously the counsel is there. They will have to return and report to someone at the legislature.

J.D. Mesnard: That is always a challenge. I am pretty confidant in our bipartisan investigative team that sought outside counsel and as attorneys, most of them are, they will be fair. We are in a post-political institution so separating that out can be a challenge but we will do our best. I am not casting any judgment on anybody. We will let the investigation play out. The next step is we have an ethics committee and they could report to those individuals on the finding from the investigation.

Ted Simons: As far as shooter's claim against representative Rita that she behaved inappropriately and made an off color joke. Will those be investigated?

J.D. Mesnard: Right now, we are investigating everything. It could be certain accusations will be re categorized. Sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior are not synonymous.

Ted Simons: You suspended representative shooter. Why?

J.D. Mesnard: I think it became a practical issue with all the allegations and how he can conduct his job as chairman. I wasn't casting a judgment on him. I think as you would see with any investigative situation, even in the private sector, people are put on administrative leave because it doesn't make sense to have them that. It is akin to that and of course if the investigations prove true we would go from there.

Ted Simons: If they prove true, at one point he was in the senate. If the problems happened while he was in the senate, what can you do in the house?

J.D. Mesnard: That is a really tricky thing because we can do anything in the house but there is a question on the appropriateness of us punishing somebody for something that was before they came to the house. The constitution doesn't say we can't but i suspect any future conversations, if it gets to a place of punishment, we will make that consideration part of the conversation.

Ted Simons: It is said shooter should resign. Do you agree?

J.D. Mesnard: I will not say that. I don't think it is fair to cast judgment prematurely. We will look at the evidence and really resignation is his decision. There are lesser penalties either I could impose if they make sense. But I think you have to let the investigation play out.

Ted Simons: From a distance, critics say there is a good old boy atmosphere there at the capitol and that this has been going on for quite a while. Valid?

J.D. Mesnard: I think it is valid. But I will say that I don't think it is just the capitol. Or even just our capitol. I think it is across the country. Not just capitols. That is where the people are represented and I think this is a social and cultural thing we are facing with a greater awareness. I hope at the end of the day it leads to a positive social change. We are dealing with our own issues in Arizona and we will continue to face them because we need a zero tolerance environment. If we have been rolling our eyes in the past, it is time to stop.

Ted Simons: Have you seen these things personally?

J.D. Mesnard: I have seen people make off collar jokes. I am a guy that believes in the golden rule and treat everybody with respect. I hope more colleagues will take that sentiment. Some of the more serious allegations, if I had seen something I would have said something or intervened and I just haven't.

Ted Simons: Speaker, thanks for being here. Coming up on Arizona Horizon, how best to deal with education funding in the state. That's next.

Rep. J.D. Mesnard: Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives

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