Arizona Capitol

Arizona House Speaker David Gowan Drops Background-Check Demand for Reporters

House Speaker David Gowan today dropped the requirement that reporters must sign a background-check form to receive House floor privileges.

The decision came under intense pressure from media outlets, and also followed New Times' article that revealed that the form wasn't really required to perform the sort of background checks that House staff could do.

As New Times reported Monday, the Arizona Department of Public Safety said it would not perform any part of the background checks to which Gowan demanded reporters submit. Gowan had authorized the new procedure ostensibly as a security measure, and revoked access to the floor and back-office area of the state House to anyone who refused to sign the form authorizing the check. No reporter signed it.

After Gowan's decision today, reporters could return to the House floor. 

House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham expressed surprised Monday when told that the DPS said it would not help with the background checks. 

Without the help of the DPS, however, filling out and signing the form became moot. The form is not needed for House staff to perform rudimentary court-site or commercial-records searches that any citizen can do.

The state Motor Vehicles Division also confirmed that although the form asked for reporters' driver's license numbers, the numbers would be useless to research MVD information without the last four digits of a Social Security number. Yet the House never asked for reporters' SSNs.

Gowan's decision came after heavy pressure from the Fourth Estate, including numerous, critical news articles over the last few days, plus a terse demand by the First Amendment Coalition to rescind the background-check requirement.

"...This isn’t the first time the chamber has tried to prevent Stephenson, if not our entire staff, from accessing the floor." — Ginger Lamb, Arizona Capitol Times vice-president and publisher

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In a statement released today to other members of the House, Gowan said he took the action after March 28 protests that led to the chaotic arrest of a 23-year-old demonstrator in the House public viewing area, called the gallery, as other demonstrators yelled at security officers.

"I have worked hard to balance a number of factors in search of a solution to the controversy that has arisen over the recent amendment to our security policy," Gowan wrote.

While other House members had expressed interest in tightening security, some had concerns over the background-check requirement for reporters. Gowan said hed took the concerns "to heart" and suspended the requirement for the rest of the legislative session.

"Now, let's all get back to work," he concluded.

Many in the news media said they believe Gowan implemented the measure specifically to target and remove Hank Stephenson, an Arizona Capitol Times reporter whose articles earlier this year caused the speaker to repay $12,000 in misappropriated travel-expense funds. Stephenson had been convicted of second-degree trespassing in 2014, a misdemeanor.

Gowan's original security protocol last week stated that reporters who had a misdemeanor conviction in the past five years or a felony conviction in the past 10 would be disallowed from the floor and other non-public areas of the State House. Exceptions could be granted, but not for people convicted of violent crimes like sex offenses, robbery, fraud, or burglary. Misdemeanor trespassing was on the list of serious felonies.

Jim Small, editor of the Cap Times, wrote in a column last week that Stephenson had been targeted for harassment previously by Gowan because of his coverage. He took Grisham to task for telling New Times that if the House wanted to hassle Stephenson, "why would we wait months and months?"

"Funny she should say that, given the months of retaliation we have endured. And since this isn’t the first time the chamber has tried to prevent Stephenson, if not our entire staff, from accessing the floor," Small wrote.

While Gowan allowed reporters back on the House floor today, they still couldn't roam the non-public areas, in the hallways next to lawmakers' offices. Previously, reporters were issued non-employee badges that granted them access to the floor and the office areas.

"If a reporter needs to speak with a member, the member will greet them and take them to their office, as always," Grisham said.

Asked to clarify the situation, Grisham said, "The bottom line is that media has access to the floor. Background checks have been suspended. Badges are still deactivated while we review policies and procedures."

Howie Fischer, a longtime Capitol reporter, told New Times on Tuesday that he remains concerned about the lack of easy access to lawmakers' offices, and that he hopes the new House leadership elected after Gowan's term ends "puts a permanent end" to the debacle. Fischer added that he was "proud" of the state's other news media for putting forward a unified front against the policy.

"It would have been easy enough for one or more media outlets to conclude that the policy — and the apparent targeting of a Capitol Times reporter — was not their problem," he said.

Gowan had forcefully denied that his approval of the security measure had been done to target Stephenson or harass the news media. Yet questions remained about how the text of the protocol came about.

Arizona Republic reporter Richard Ruelas wrote in an article Monday that the lawmaker who requested beefed-up security never mentioned the news media, and that House lawyer Robert Ellman said the rule was created "without House leadership knowing about Stephenson's conviction."

Correction: The Cap Times op-ed was written by Jim Small, not Ginger Lamb.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern