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Lawmaker asks for dismissal of hidden bible ethics complaint

Frame from House hidden camera in member lounge showing Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton taking Bibles from tables and moving them.
Capitol Media Services
Frame from House hidden camera in member lounge showing Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton taking Bibles from tables and moving them.

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- A Tucson Democratic lawmaker is asking that an ethics complaint filed against her by three Republican lawmakers be dismissed.

Attorneys for Stephanie Stahl Hamilton said her actions last month to move and hide Bibles in the House lounge was a "peaceful protest regarding the separation of church and state.'' In a formal response Monday, the lawyers also said she acted "in response to the weaponizing of religion in politics.''

Motives aside, her attorneys also pointed out that Stahl Hamilton made a public apology on the House floor.

But Stahl Hamilton is counting on more than that to end the matter.

One of the elements of the complaint accuses her of theft, saying she was controlling the property of someone else, hiding it, even if only for a short period of time. And that someone else, according to the complaint, can include the Arizona House.

Her lawyers say that complaint has no merit.

"Rep. Stahl Hamilton's actions do not constitute theft as defined by Arizona law, as she has the legal right to use items in the members' lounge,'' they said in their response.
They also brush aside the argument that Stahl Hamilton had violated state and federal laws prohibiting harassment in the workplace and that she had created a "hostile work environment' by requiring her co-workers and staff to "unwittingly desecrate their sacred texts'' by sitting on the Bibles that were hidden in couch cushions.

What's wrong with that argument, her lawyers said, is that it is legally impossible for her to create that hostile work environment.

"She is neither an employer nor supervisor of legislators,'' they said. "Thus, only House leadership and committee chairpersons can create a hostile work environment.''

That still leaves a third claim of "disorderly behavior.''

Yet even in filing the complaint, the three GOP lawmakers conceded there is no actual Arizona court case to define what that means -- and what it would take to be guilty of that. And Stahl Hamilton's lawyers said that that there is no basis for the complaint as it fails "to state a cognizable claim under House rules.''

And if none of that convinces members of the Ethics Committee to dismiss the claim, the lawyers for the Tucson lawmaker have one final argument.

They said the rules for the committee require the signatures on any complaint must be notarized. That, however, did not occur here.

Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, who chairs the Ethics Committee, will now give a copy of the response to the other four members of the panel, two Democrats and two Republicans. They have the option of dismissing the case outright or having a hearing where they can question Stahl Hamilton.

The next step if they go that route would be to decide if there was a violation of House rules and, if so, whether to recommend discipline to the full House. A simple majority of the House could censure her; expulsion would take a two-thirds vote.

What led to the complaint was lawmakers saying that Bibles that are placed in the House lounge were repeatedly disappearing. Some were found under chair and couch cushions; at one point a Bible was found in the lounge refrigerator.

House leadership approved placing a hidden video camera in the lounge. It captured images of Stahl Hamilton picking up the books off tables and hiding them.

When the video became public, she apologized, saying she was trying to make a "playful'' point about the separation of church and state.

That led to a formal complaint being filed by Reps. Justin Heap of Mesa, David Marshall of Snowflake and Lupe Diaz of Benson. They said her public statements "did not provide sufficient justification or excuse for her conduct.'' Nor were they swayed by that explanation.

"These public comments came only (ITALICS) after (ROMAN) the representative was aware that her actions had been caught on camera and the incident became a matter of national concern,'' they wrote.

There may be some political payback in the complaint.

It was Stahl Hamilton who filed a complaint against Rep. Liz Harris over her decision to invite testimony at a legislative hearing that resulted in false and libelous accusations against lawmakers, judges and even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, accusing them of being involved in a criminal scheme to rig elections and other crimes.

Harris eventually was expelled.

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