By Howard Fischer | Twitter: @azcapmedia
PHOENIX — Members of the House Ethics Committee have concluded that Tucson Democrat Stephanie Stahl Hamilton is guilty of “disorderly behavior” for her action in moving and hiding Bibles in the lounge used by lawmakers.
In their report issued Friday, panel members concluded that Stahl Hamilton:
•Purposely removed the Bibles from the lounge on three separate occasions;
• Intentionally concealed the books in a manner that was disrespectful to other members;
• Violated the “inherent obligation to protect the integrity of the House,” offended some members and caused the House to expend resources to place a hidden camera to find where the Bibles were going.
The committee, in its unanimous, bipartisan report, also said Stahl Hamilton never fully apologized for her actions after they were made public and gained national attention. Instead the report says that, at best, she said in her floor speech that she was apologizing to those who she had offended.
And any chance she had to personally rectify that when the committee heard evidence last month disappeared when she did not show up but instead sent two lawyers, both former state lawmakers, in her sted.
Committee members, however, made no recommendation on what punishment, if any, should be imposed.
Instead, they are urging all lawmakers to read it and decide for themselves what action is appropriate.
That could come on Monday. And Stahl Hamilton said she won’t comment until that happens.
The chances of her being ejected from the House are virtually nil.
In the last two times that was imposed, once was against a lawmaker who had violated House policies on sexual harassment. The other, earlier this year, was against Rep. Liz Harris who lawmakers concluded had facilitated false testimony to a committee and then lied about her role when questioned.
There also is the fact that it takes a two-thirds vote to remove a lawmaker. And there is little chance that Democrats, who control 29 of the 60 seats, would go along.
A more likely punishment is censure, essentially a formal reprimand by her colleagues.
Whether Democrats would support even that, however, remains unclear.
In a prepared statement Friday, House Democrat leaders say they have seen the report and “accept its findings.”
But they also said they accept the apologies she made and that she has “owned her actions.”
“We will not engage in any further divisive rhetoric or political opportunism that this incident has inspired,” the statement reads. “It is time to focus and devote our attention to the important work we have left at our Capitol.”
All this traces back to March when some members first noticed that the two Bibles, which are placed on tables in the lounge just outside the House chambers, were missing. A search by security staff turned them up — underneath the cushions of chairs.
Another incident about a week later found the Bible in a refrigerator in the lounge.
House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Peoria, then authorized the placement of a hidden camera. And that resulted in an April 10 video of Stahl Hamilton moving the books.
It was only after that video went public after being aired by a Phoenix TV station that she first explained her actions briefly to Capitol Media Services, calling it “just a little playful commentary on the separation of church and state.”
That was followed by a floor speech.
“I acknowledge that a conversation about the separation of church and state should have began with a conversation,” said Stahl Hamilton who holds a master’s of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and is an ordained Presbyterian minister. And she said she recognizes her actions “could have been seen as something less than playful and offensive.”
That didn’t satisfy three first-term Republican lawmakers who filed a complaint. They said that, in putting the Bibles under seat cushions, she was “potentially causing Christian members of the House, staff, and guests to unknowingly sit on their own holy text.” And the GOP lawmakers said her placement of one in a refrigerator is “disrespectful in the extreme.”
All that led to a hearing last month where members of the Ethics Committee took testimony and sought to question Stahl Hamilton. But she chose not to attend on “the advice of my excellent lawyers.”
Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, who chairs the committee, said their presence did not substitute for committee members being able to hear directly from her.
“They can’t answer for her on any questions that were directed to her on her beliefs or her actions or any knowledge that she may have,” he said. “That would have been nice to have those answers today.”
The panel’s report was released Friday.
It says there is no question that Stahl Hamilton removed the Bibles, not only the one time she was captured on video but in at least two other prior incidents.
Then there was what she did with them in what she claimed was her desire to make a point about having Bibles in the House lounge.
“Rep. Stahl Hamilton could have placed the Bibles on a bookshelf or even placed them on the Sergeant-at-Arms’ desk after removing them from their usual places and still accomplished her stated goal,” the report says.
“Instead, she twice decided to put the Bibles within pieces of furniture where people — including her — frequently sit,” it continues. “Her choice was not only disrespectful of the Bible itself but was deeply offensive to those members who revere the Bible as their holy text.”
Beyond that, the report says that, in hiding he books, she “deprived members who choose to exercise their religious beliefs by referring to the biblical text of any opportunity to do so during the time periods when the Bibles were missing.” And it says this isn’t just because what was involved was the Bible.
“Her actions would have been equally offensive and disrespectful if it had been the Book of Mormon, Qur’an, or any other religious text,” the report reads.
Then there’s the issue of whether her floor speech amounted to an actual apology.
“On one hand, the committee recognizes that Rep. Stahl Hamilton might believe that her public acknowledgment of the matter and expressing remorse sufficiently addressed it,” the report says.
“Conversely, the committee also recognizes that some might believe that her decision to apologize expressly for external reactions but not likewise to do so for her personal actions falls short of fully taking responsibility for her behavior.”
And it that goes back to her decision not to attend the hearing, with the report saying that the committee would have preferred to hear directly from her during the hearing “to help discern how to approach these competing inferences.”
Mr. Fischer, a longtime award-winning Arizona journalist, is founder and operator of Capitol Media Services.