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Arizona DPS Says it Won't Help State House Speaker Perform Background Checks on Reporters

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The Arizona Department of Public Safety said today it won't take part in background checks on reporters for the state House of Representatives, raising key questions about the controversial process.

Without help from law enforcement, House staff would be relegated to searching court sites and Google, same as any member of the public, to conduct the checks. But such searches would not reveal all of the misdemeanors or felonies that could get a reporter's House access privileges revoked.

Last week, House Speaker David Gowan banned all reporters from the House floor and back office area unless they signed a permission slip agreeing to background checks. Anyone with a misdemeanor in the last five years, or a felony in the last 10 years, excluding traffic offenses, would not get the special-access privileges, Gowan's edict stated.

If something egregious like murder or misdemeanor trespassing were to show up in a check, no exception would be made for the reporter.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, a reporter whose research last year forced Gowan to repay $12,000 in misappropriated travel expenses was convicted in 2014 of misdemeanor trespassing, leading pundits to suggest that the new rule actually was a devious form of retaliation against reporter Hank Stephenson of the Arizona Capitol Times.

Whatever the reason, the Arizona Capitol press corps refused to sign the permission form — and  summarily were banned from the floor and House hallways as promised. They could still do their jobs from the public gallery viewing area.

"It just makes my job harder," Howie Fischer of Capitol Media Services told New Times this morning.

Today, however, New Times learned that the Arizona Department of Public Safety won't get involved in the background checks. This means the background checks won't be extensive and won't require any permission from the person being probed.

"Whatever background checks, they are not going to be thorough," says Phoenix-area private investigator Rich Robertson.

The form asks for a name, date of birth, previous names used, if any, and a driver's license number.

Obtaining the driver's license number would allow House staff to look up a reporter's past 39 months of traffic history on the Motor Vehicle Division's Service Arizona website — but only if the last four digits of a Social Security number were provided. Gowan's plan called for verification of reporters' SSNs, but the provision since was removed, and the House never actually asked reporters to provide the numbers.

Stephanie Grisham, House spokesperson, could not immediately respond to questions about the lack of DPS involvement in the background checks.

New Times began inquiring last week about DPS' involvement and how the background checks would be performed. A comprehensive criminal background analysis typically requires a set of fingerprints.

DPS spokesman Bart Graves told New Times this morning that the DPS wouldn't take part in the checks.

Using public databases like maricopa.gov or the federal PACER court records site, House staff might find criminal and civil legal cases. But not all Arizona counties or cities put their court information online. Convictions for misdemeanor assaults, robberies, or even trespassing can't be found easily in some jurisdictions — you have to ask each municipality directly, which takes a lot of time.

And finding convictions from other states — especially for misdemeanors — is even more challenging. Using a handy background-check website might help, but those are expensive and might contain inaccurate information. 

Dan Barr, a lawyer for the First Amendment Coalition, said the fact that DPS won't be involved makes it obvious that the House is conjuring up a problem where there is none..

"It shows how phony the whole thing was," Barr says.

The new rule was designed to target Stephenson "because they knew he had a trespassing conviction," Barr says. "It's clearly Dave Gowan on a temper tantrum."

The First Amendment Coalition is demanding that the House either rescind the requirement to sign a form authorizing the background check or face a possible lawsuit.

Gowan might as well rescind the requirement to fill out the form — because it apparently has no purpose other than to hassle reporters.

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