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Four Arizona lawmakers detail claims of harassment, inappropriate behavior

(Facebook/Arizona Capitol Museum)

PHOENIX — At least four Arizona lawmakers have come forward alleging harassment or inappropriate behavior at the state Legislature.

State Reps. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, Kelly Townsend, Athena Salman and Wenona Benally have gone public with a series of claims as of Wednesday.

Ugenti-Rita first came forward with claims of sexual harassment last month.

The Republican lawmaker wrote in a Facebook post that several of her male coworkers made unwanted sexual advances and openly commented on her body and looks in 2011, her first year on the job at the State Capitol.

She said she told leadership what was happening to her and that while they were sympathetic, they felt their hands were tied.

Ugenti-Rita furthered her claims on Tuesday, saying that one of the men who sexually harassed her for years was state Rep. Don Shooter.

Shooter initially apologized for his behavior, but quickly shot back at her allegations and took back his apology after seeing specifics of her claims.

“Ms. Ugenti is lying about me and I have asked [House Speaker J.D. Mesnard] to have the entire matter investigated by the House Ethics Committee/Counsel,” Shooter said. “At the conclusion of their work, I will consider taking further legal action in this matter.”

In a Facebook post, Townsend said she has received “unwanted sexual advances by more than one person” and has been subject to “intimidating behavior and retaliation” by someone in a position of power in years past. 

Townsend also said she had witnessed Ugenti-Rita be mistreated in the past, but not by Shooter.

Benally said in a tweet that she has her “own story to share,” but did not expand on the allegations. Salman also said in a tweet to “add [her] to the record” of women who have been sexually harassed at the Arizona Legislature.

Mesnard announced Wednesday that he would conduct an investigation to examine the harassment allegations.

“All allegations of sexual harassment will be taken seriously in the House,” Mesnard said in a statement.

In an interview with KTAR News 92.3 FM, Mesnard said he was not made aware of any claims in the past, but said he will be taking them at “face value” while conducting the investigation.

“It certainly helps when allegations come directly to me, because we can begin with a little more specificity, but given the public comments that some have made, we are taking that at face value and taking them as they come out,” he said.

The announcement came just days after the Arizona House issued a written harassment policy in response to Ugenti-Rita’s claims.

Under the new policy, a House member experiencing harassment can report it to the chamber’s attorney or the chiefs of staff from either party.

Gov. Doug Ducey issued a statement saying he supported Mesnard’s decision to launch the investigations.

“There can be absolutely no tolerance for sexual harassment in the halls of our state Capitol, or any other organization — private or public,” Ducey said.

KTAR News’ Corbin Carson and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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