Press Banned From Arizona House Floor After Refusing Background Checks

News reporters were banned from the floor of the Arizona House of Representatives on Thursday in a move that many considered linked to negative coverage of House Speaker David Gowan.

Whether Gowan retaliated against a single reporter by targeting them all, the new edict forced the news media to choose between signing away their personal information to potentially hostile lawmakers or doing their jobs the way they'd done them for years.

No news media member completed the background-check forms.

"The things they wanted were totally unnecessary, inappropriate, and in fact, far more extensive than records sought by the White House, by the U.S. Congress, and by the Secret Service," Capitol Media Services reporter Howie Fischer says in a video.

For decades, reporters have been able to cover Legislature news from the floor and walk into back hallways where lawmakers keep their offices. This changed Thursday as the new requirement went into effect, and reporters had to pound out the day's news on their laptops in the public gallery, which overlooks the House floor.

The state Capitol press corps was told earlier this week that invasive background checks would be required to retain non-employee badges that gave them access to the floor. Members of the press who were found to have been convicted of a misdemeanor in the last five years or a felony in the last 10 would not to be allowed back at all without a special exception. But no exception could be given if the reporter had committed one of several listed crimes, including heinous crimes like murder, kidnapping, sex offenses, and robbery, and lesser crimes like eavesdropping and trespassing.

Suspicion fell on Speaker Gowan (R-Sierra Vista), who had approved the new requirement. Coincidentally, a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times who forced Gowan to repay $12,000 in misappropriated travel expenses had been convicted of misdemeanor trespassing two years ago. The reporter, Hank Stephenson, tweeted that Howie Fischer "got the scoop on why we think @DavidGowanAZ is requiring background checks: I was arrested a few years ago."

Fischer's story refers to public records that show the reporter was convicted of second-degree trespassing in Wickenburg municipal court in 2014. Stephenson said he wasn't authorized to comment.

Media pundits jumped on the Legislature for the heavy-handed move; Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts wrote that state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who's investigating Gowan at the request of Gowan, (who has said publicly he wants to clear his name in the vehicle-use scandal), ought to expand the investigation "to include intimidation and abuse of power."

The background-check requirements include verification of current and past residences, all civil and criminal records, "and any other public records."

Gowan denied any allegation of retaliation.

Stephanie Grisham, spokeswoman for the Republican majority, says there's a "clear refusal" by reporters to sign and that their decision was based on "a couple of reporters' false thought on how it's going down."

The new rule is just a security measure that has been in the works for more than a year, she said. Gowan may have approved it, but he had nothing else to do with — he had no input at all on the plan, she said. In addition to reporters, the chaplain and House doctor also have to go through the same procedure.

"If we were going to be targeting [Stephenson], why would we wait months and months?" Grisham asked rhetorically.

CLARIFICATION: Grisham called back to let us know the background check won't include a verification of the reporter's Social Security Number, although initial paperwork for the background check asked for it. She also clarified that security changes had been planned for a year, not just several weeks — New Times was not able to verify that immediately.
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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.