Dems call for censure, file ethics complaint against Liz Harris over ‘defamatory’ hearing
Harris organized the Feb. 23 hearing that was marked by testimony about an alleged conspiracy involving drug cartels
Rep. Liz Harris, R-Chandler, at a Jan. 26, 2023, press conference. Photo by Gage Skidmore (modified) | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
Democrats and Republicans are striking starkly different tones about a presentation arranged by a first-year GOP lawmaker last month that included wild conspiracy theories about a host of elected officials being bought off by a Mexican drug cartel.
On March 6, Democrats called for a censure of Rep. Liz Harris, R-Chandler, and have filed a formal ethics complaint against her. Republicans, meanwhile, have distanced themselves from Harris and the day-long hearing she arranged, which culminated in testimony many have said was defamatory.
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Democrats in the state House of Representatives, led by Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, formally moved to censure Harris, who invited Gilbert insurance agent Jacqueline Breger to speak before the Joint Elections Committee on Feb. 23.
Through the motion for censure, and the ethics complaint, the Democrats accused Harris of disorderly conduct and facilitating the illegal defamation of Republican House Speaker Ben Toma, along with other elected officials, judges and city employees.
During the Feb. 23 hearing, Breger accused Gov. Katie Hobbs, several Maricopa County supervisors, 12 Maricopa County Superior Court judges, the mayor of Mesa and multiple state legislators of taking bribes from the Sinaloa drug cartel in the form of money laundered through a housing deed scam.
“By inviting Ms. Breger to present her false statement to the committee, Representative Harris not only allowed the impugning of other members, but she also made the Arizona Legislature a national joke, with news articles and opinion pieces excoriating the members for allowing such a circus,” Stahl Hamilton wrote in her ethics complaint .
The Arizona Mirror reviewed the “evidence” of the scam that Breger and her boyfriend John Thaler shared and found none of it to be credible. In many cases, supposed “fake” people were real, and supposedly falsified deeds attributed to elected officials were merely filed by people with similar names.
“Harris’ actions have brought disrepute and embarrassment to the House of Representatives and aided the spread of harmful lies that have spread exponentially via social media and right-wing news outlets,” House Democrats said in a statement.
Stahl Hamilton said she waited until March 6 to call for a censure because she hoped that Republicans themselves would demand accountability, but they did not. Instead, Democrats said there was a coordinated email campaign that threatened retaliation against any legislators who attempted to censure Harris.
Republicans didn’t entertain the motion to censure Harris and instead ended the chamber’s work for the day.
Stahl Hamilton then filed the formal ethics complaint against Harris with the House Ethics Committee.
“I watched (the) video of the joint committee testimony in shock,” Stahl Hamilton wrote in the ethics complaint. “I simply cannot understand how Representative Harris could have concluded that it would be appropriate to invite Ms. Breger to testify and to spread such blatant falsehoods. By using the joint elections committee as her platform to spread her lies, she has given them the appearance of fact.”
Over in the state Senate, Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, defended himself against claims by Breger and others that he was involved in the alleged money laundering scheme and said that the people involved in the presentation need to be held accountable, although he didn’t mention anyone specifically. Bennett is the vice chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, and was the only one who spoke up during the Feb. 23 meeting and told Breger she had gone too far — but that was only after she accused the legislators themselves of accepting bribes from the Sinaloa cartel.
“These claims are totally false,” Bennett said.
Bennett said that documents that Breger and Thaler shared, which they claimed proved his involvement in the housing scheme, simply showed that he and his wife purchased a house in Prescott, then sold it and bought another one, obtained a home equity loan and were preparing to ensure the house could be easily passed on to the next generation.
The Senate Elections Committee on March 6 also met for the first time since the now infamous Feb. 23 meeting, but Republicans on the committee did not acknowledge the bizarre claims they heard the last time they met.
Ben Scheel, executive director of the left-leaning nonprofit Opportunity Arizona, excoriated the committee during the meeting.
Scheel was there to speak in opposition to House Bill 2308, which would bar any future secretary of state from handling any part of an election they are a candidate in. The bill is a direct response to Hobbs’ run for governor while she was secretary of state, which was the basis of unfounded speculation by Republicans that she held sway over the election results because she, as secretary of state, was required to certify the results. In fact, election officials in Arizona’s 15 counties conduct elections and count the results; the secretary of state’s role is to certify the statewide totals once that work is complete.
After the Feb. 23 hearing, Scheel said he wondered if all the election bills proposed in the state legislature were based on conspiracy theories.
“These lies are dangerous and this body should not be giving them attention,” he said.
The committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, warned Scheel that he was dangerously close to “casting aspersions” on the committee.
Rogers later cut Scheel off and told him he was done speaking, saying he was breaking rules of order.
“I will decide what we have committee hearings about,” Rogers told Scheel. “That’s the second time you’ve told us how to do our job. That is not your role.”
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