Michelle Ugenti revenge porn – should it be released?

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Michelle Ugenti
Arizona legislator Michelle Ugenti-Rita, Photo Gage Skidmore

There has been a LOT of craziness in the Arizona state House of Representatives lately, with overlapping scandals emerging one after the other. The most important scandals all involve Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the Republican chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. So far there is no evidence Ugenti has done anything wrong, but she possibly faces some brutal fallout nonetheless.

A former House staffer, Brian Townsend, was found in a recent enquiry to have sent revenge porn – to whom, and of whom is not made explicit – but Ugenti is certainly involved. Now a fellow lawmaker, in a clear attempt to protect Ugenti, has proposed a bill that forbids revenge porn evidence about state legislators from being made public.

The first scandal – Don Shooter

Don Shooter
Former Representative Don Shooter, photo Gage Skidmore

The series of sexual scandals engulfing the Arizona State House began in October 2017 when Michelle Ugenti, in the wake of the unfolding #MeToo scandal, came forward with a disturbing portrait of life as a female legislator in the Grand Canyon State.

In an open letter posted on social media she wrote, “Almost immediately upon my arrival to the Capitol, I experienced unwanted sexual advances and lewd and suggestive comments regarding my body and appearance from male colleagues.

“As the behavior became more aggressive and brazen, I could no longer ignore what was happening because being at the Capitol and interacting with some of my peers became uncomfortable and intimidating as I established myself in this new role.”

At first Ugenti declined to name names, but two weeks later she confirmed that one of the men who had been harassing her for years was the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and fellow Republican, Don Shooter. Seven other women also came forward with similar allegations against Shooter.

A House investigation followed, leading eventually to Shooter being expelled on February 1st. But Don Shooter has not gone quietly. He has made a series of allegations before and since his expulsion, including one against Ugenti.

Michelle Ugenti-Rita herself accused

Shooter responded to Ugenti’s accusations by turning the tables. He accused her of having a sexual relationship with a male legislative staff member and of making a comment about masturbation to another lawmaker in a public hearing, which was recorded on video.

Ugenti did not respond to Shooter’s allegation, and at first it appeared to be unsubstantiated. But as the investigation into Shooter concluded, it found evidence to corroborate a version of Shooter’s allegation. Would Michelle Ugenti be brought down for similar behavior to Shooter?

Fiancé, not victim

Michelle Ugenti Townsend
Ugenti & Townsend; source 3TV/CBS 5

The basic premise of Shooter’s first allegation, that Michelle Ugenti has had a sexual relationship with a former staffer, appears to be true – technically. Ugenti is engaged to Brian Townsend, a former legislative staffer who last worked as policy director in 2015. Townsend, 40, is three years older than Ugenti and the relationship could hardly be described as a typical #MeToo power-exploitation play, and is certainly not a crime.

But the investigation appears to have found wrongdoing by Townsend involving Ugenti that has resulted in another wave of scandal. According to the Arizona Capitol Times, Townsend told the investigating attorneys that he shared “unsolicited, sexually explicit communications” in a manner he said was intended to “hurt and humiliate” Ugenti. Apparently a lovers quarrel, apparently resolved as the pair remain engaged.

Lawmakers calls for further investigation

Despite no call from Ugenti to press charges against her fiancé, her fellow Republican Anthony Kern is making a big stink about the findings. As Shooter was being voted out, he called for prosecuters to evaluate possible charges.

On the House floor on February 1st, Kern said, “I will be drafting a letter to the Attorney General and the Maricopa County Attorney in response to an alleged unwelcome, harassing and offensive communication by a Mr. Brian Townsend.”

Fellow Republican Maria Syms supported Townsend’s calls, and Kern did send letters to a series of law enforcement bodies, including the FBI.

The alleged misconduct may have taken place before the Arizona revenge porn laws took effect in 2016, so whether or not any law has been broken may depend largely on the timeline. If prosecutors find that there is a case against Townsend he can be prosecuted even without Ugenti’s cooperation.

Revenge porn ethical dilemma?

The revenge porn images in question form part of the documentation in the three-month investigation into Shooter, and as such fall under the Arizona Public Records Law. The Arizona Republic, the states largest newspaper, has requested all records from the investigation, including the images. This request has so far not been fulfilled, but it is probably just a matter of time before it is.

The investigation report does not state who the revenge porn images were sent to, nor who appears in them, but efforts of a fellow lawmaker to supress the images suggest they are of Ugenti.

On February 5th another fellow Republican representative, Kelly Townsend (no relation to Brian Townsend), introduced a bill to keep “explicit content” confidential if it involves a state legislator in a sexual harassment investigation “that includes photographs of a sexual nature of a member or staff person.”

Townsend claims that the bill is her idea, but stated that she has spoken to Ugenti “to explain to her what I was doing.”

Different rules for the rulers

Whatever the actual content of Brian Townsend’s revenge porn images, Kelly Townsend’s actions only make sense if they would be embarrassing for Michelle Ugenti. The motive for the bill is totally understandable – it would seem bizarre and incredibly cruel to further circulate revenge porn images of Ugenti (especially to prosecute someone Ugenti may not want prosecuted).

But creating a separate protection for Arizona lawmakers that the wider public does not enjoy is harder to justify. Being victimized by revenge porn is not something legislators are more at risk of than anyone else, nor are sexual relationships part of their formal legislative duties. Why do they deserve extra protection?

Dan Barr, a media lawyer and expert on the state’s public-records law, told the Arizona Republic he thinks Townsend’s bill is “a profoundly bad idea.”

“It sounds like a special-purpose bill to me,” he said, “One of the great purposes of the public records law is to evaluate the conduct of public officials. To totally exempt this type of conduct here is bad public policy.”

So far, the House investigation has been careful to protect Ugenti’s privacy. House Speaker J.D. Mesnard (yet another Republican) told the Republic that only the investigative team, which included no lawmakers, has seen the images in question.

“Respecting the privacy of victims is a prevailing concern of the House’s sexual harassment policy,” Mesnard told The Arizona Republic.

Whatever the fate of Townsend’s bill, it appears the various scandals swirling around the Arizona House have a way to go before they are resolved.

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