The Arizona Supreme Court issued an opinion Wednesday dismissing part of a defamation lawsuit by expelled Arizona legislator Don Shooter against Sen. J.D. Mesnard (R-Chandler) on Wednesday, while allowing the remaining part of the case to proceed.
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale) complained in 2017 when she was in the state House that Shooter, a Republican from Litchfield Park, sexually harassed her, resulting in the legislature removing him in 2018. He sued then-House speaker Mesnard, who introduced a bill to remove Shooter, over a press release and 82-page investigative report Mesnard issued about the expulsion. Shooter accused him of defamation and materially altering the investigative report.
The court held that Mesnard is immune from lawsuits over the investigatory report, but not for the press release. The justices analyzed the scope of legislative immunity, and concluded based on case law that tasks like issuing news releases are political acts so are unprotected. In contrast, the “preparation and release” of the investigative report was “an integral part of the deliberative and communicative processes” of the legislature.
The court made it clear that it did not reach the issue of whether Mesnard’s modifications to the report were “surreptitious and dishonest.” Four justices participated in the majority opinion, a fifth issued a concurring opinion and two recused themselves. The case will be remanded to the trial court where the judge will only consider the press release to decide the defamation lawsuit. The trial court originally denied Mesnard’s motion to dismiss, stating there was no legislative immunity.
The feud burst onto the Arizona political scene at the height of the #MeToo movement. Fox 10 labeled Ugenti-Rita “the face of the #MeToo movement at the Arizona State Capitol.” Further, accusations flew both ways. A lobbyist accused Ugenti-Rita in a statement of sexually harassing her, which Shooter included in a court filing. Shooter accused Ugenti-Rita of having an affair with Mesnard’s chief of staff. The Phoenix New Times called Ugenti-Rita out for hypocrisy after a legislative camera caught her saying something to a male colleague that could be construed as sexual harassment.
The investigative report found that Shooter had acted inappropriately with three other women. However, it acknowledged that some legislators view him as “a character,” “flirtatious,” and a “class clown.”
Shooter’s attorney, Stuart Bernstein, said upon hearing the verdict that Shooter is thrilled to finally be able to have his day in court. “He was trying to do the right thing for Arizona, and now he’ll be able to show exactly what the defendants did here.” Attempts to reach Mesnard were unsuccessful.
Shooter maintains that he was retaliated against for trying to expose corruption in state government. He wrote a report explaining how he discovered that state technology purchases weren’t competitively bid, but when he complained about it, Ugenti-Rita’s husband Brian Townsend, a lobbyist for procurement systems, became angry with him.
Shooter maintains a website where he posts about the lawsuit. He filed a separate claim against the House alleging that his rights were violated in the ouster, because there was no Ethics Committee investigation where he could try his case. A trial court threw it out, ruling the legislature has authority over how it deals with its members, and Shooter has appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Ugenti-Rita is now running for secretary of state.
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Rachel Alexander is the State House reporter at The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News Network. Follow Rachel on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Don Shooter” by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 3.0. Background Photo “Arizona Supreme Court” by davidpinter. CC BY 3.0.