Lobbyist details the death threat she heard Rep. Leezah Sun make as House Ethics mulls punishment
A Democratic lawmaker facing possible expulsion for allegedly threatening to throw a lobbyist off of a balcony denies doing so, despite two witnesses testifying that they personally heard the threat.
The House Ethics Committee on Thursday held its second hearing investigating a complaint filed by Democratic leadership against Rep. Leezah Sun, D-Phoenix. The freshman lawmaker has been accused of behavior that violates the legislature’s definition of disorderly conduct, including using her position to influence the outcome of a child custody arrangement, intimidating a school official with the threat of an unwarranted investigation and threatening to “bi*** slap” and throw a Tolleson city employee off a hotel balcony.
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Last year, Sun became hostile during a meeting at Tolleson Civic Center with City Manager Reyes Medrano, lobbyist Pilar Sinawi and Alicia Guzman, who works on the city’s government affairs team. Sun was eventually escorted out of the building due to her use of profanity and intimidating behavior. Months later, at a conference in a Tucson hotel, Sun told another lobbyist that if she saw Sinawi, who wasn’t in attendance, she would slap her and throw her off a nearby balcony.
Liz Goodman, who Sun made the comment to, told lawmakers on Thursday that she was shocked and uncomfortable. Goodman, who works for a Phoenix lobbying firm and attended the conference to connect with politicians and other officials, said the threat was made after Sun was asked if she could arrange an introduction for Goodman with Tolleson city officials.
“Her response was really unexpected, took us all by surprise,” Goodman said, referring to her client and team member who were seated next to her.
“When she referred specifically to Ms. Sinawi, she said something along the lines of, ‘I assume you’re referring to Ms. Pilar Sinawi, from Tolleson. If I see her here, I will bi*** slap her, throw her over the balcony’ — there was a visible balcony that we could see from where we were sitting — ‘and kill her,’” Goodman added.
Lawmakers questioned Goodman on whether the meeting was informal, or if the comment was perhaps meant as a joke. But Goodman said that while conferences include less formal discussions in the evenings, her meeting with Sun was during the day and was clearly intended to be a professional one. And Sun didn’t laugh or add any clarification that she wasn’t serious. A response to the complaint filed by Sun’s attorney in November claimed that the lawmaker had added a preamble to her comment saying she is a pacifist and doesn’t believe in violence, but Goodman said she heard no such preamble that day.
Sun pushed back on Goodman’s testimony, implying that she had breached the “lobbyist confidentiality protocol” and that Sun could have retaliated against her, but didn’t. No state law protecting conversations between politicians and lobbyists exists, though lobbyists rarely are publicly critical of legislators because it is bad for their business. Sun then requested that Goodman name any other person she had shared their conversation with, but committee Chairman Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, denied that request.
Kayla Destiny Ruiz, who works with Goodman and also heard the threat, testified that she felt Sun’s statement was made seriously, and described the indoor balcony as having at least a 20-foot drop.
Sun attempted to dispute the description of the two-floors high staircase in the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa as a balcony, saying that it included stairs and extended towards the ground floor. But Chaplik was unconvinced.
“There’s a level change of difference,” he rebutted.
Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, pressed Sun on her statements in her first ethics hearing in December, when she unequivocally denied threatening to kill Sinawi.
“I specifically asked you if you said this, and you said you did not. I’m going to ask you again: Did you say this to Ms. Goodman?” he asked.
Sun responded that the accusation against her is only partially true, as she did say she would slap Sinawi, and again reiterated her belief that there was no balcony.
“I did not say ‘over the balcony and kill her,’” she said. “And there was no balcony at this event.”
In her closing statement, Sun denied having acted in a manner that reflected poorly on the legislature, and dismissed the allegations against her as baseless.
“In no way have I brought shame or disrespect to this venerable institution, and I consider myself privileged to be able to perform the people’s work. We all know how being an elected official can invite sharp and unwarranted attacks,” she said.
Instead, her comments at the Tucson conference were nothing more than “colorful language” used after receiving an upsetting phone call from a former campaign worker who was, she said, being wrongfully prosecuted in Tolleson for stealing campaign signs. And she accused Goodman of intentionally riling her up, knowing that Sun had an uneasy relationship with Tolleson city officials.
“She did not need an introduction to the mayor of Tolleson or Pilar, as she claims. She has been a lobbyist long enough to know both of them,” Sun said. “She brought up Tolleson to goad me, and I took the bait.”
Near the end of the hearing, Rep. Christopher Mathis, D-Tucson, brought up the news that Sun attended a Littleton Elementary school board meeting earlier this month to complain about the superintendent, who testified against her at first ethics hearing. That newest attempt at intimidation, Mathis said, is relevant to her ongoing investigation.
“It’s my understanding that Representative Sun did attend that Jan. 9 Littleton Elementary meeting, and it’s also my understanding that she engaged in behavior that could objectively be characterized as intimidation and retaliation of one of our previous witnesses,” he said.
Sun refused to offer a response or an explanation of her actions.
Chaplik told reporters after the hearing that the committee expects to file a recommendation for the full House of Representatives to vote on by early February. The committee can advise the chamber to take no action, censure or expel Sun. While censuring requires only a majority vote, expelling requires two-thirds of the chamber’s 60 lawmakers, making agreement across party lines necessary.
And, given that Democratic leadership filed the complaint against Sun, that possibility is not out of the question.