For about 90 minutes on Thursday, the state House of Representatives Ethics Committee questioned Harris about the Feb. 23 meeting, in an attempt to determine if she knew in advance that the speaker planned to spread wild and unfounded allegations.
The Ethics Committee adjourned Thursday afternoon to look over the evidence and deliberate what action it would take, if any, and Committee Chairman Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, did not indicate when the committee would reconvene to announce its decision.
House Democrats on March 6, led by Rep. Stephanie Stahl, asked that the Ethics Committee formally censure Harris for inviting Gilbert insurance agent Jacqueline Breger to speak during the joint Senate and House elections committee meeting on Feb. 23. Breger accused the LDS church and other officials, including Gov. Katie Hobbs and Republican House Speaker Ben Toma, of taking part in a housing deed and money laundering scheme alongside the Mexican drug cartel.
For more than 40 minutes on Feb. 23, Breger made salacious claims about the various officials and members of the legislature, accusing them of election fraud in addition to money laundering.
To back up her claims, Breger pointed to a book by her boyfriend, John Thaler, and a slew of documents upon which he apparently used to inform his book.
On Thursday, Harris said that Stahl had not reviewed any of the evidence of Breger’s claims before she made an ethics complaint, adding that she believes Stahl cannot prove that any of the information presented during the meeting was untrue.
The Arizona Mirror reviewed the “evidence” of the scam that Breger and Thaler shared and found none of it to be credible. In many cases, allegedly “fake” people listed on supposedly phony deeds were real, and so-called falsified deeds attributed to elected officials were merely filed by people with similar names.
Fringe conservative media outlets helped Breger and Thaler’s unfounded claims to spread like wildfire across the country after the meeting, prompting many Republicans in the legislature to distance themselves from the testimony, including Toma and Senate President Warren Peterson.
Harris told the Ethics Committee that she had no idea that Breger was going to make such outlandish claims, adding that she’d never seen the list of elected officials supposedly involved in the scheme until that day.
“I was shocked when I saw the names listed,” Harris said, adding that she was “extremely upset” that Toma was included in the list.
Harris said that she told Breger prior to the meeting that Breger could not to impugn the members of the legislature or bring up claims regarding any religious institutions during her testimony.
Both Breger and Thaler had previously made unfounded claims that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was involved in the scandal.
But screenshots of a text message thread among Harris, Breger and an unidentified person who is assumed to be John Thaler, were delivered anonymously to legislative leadership and submitted as evidence in the ethics complaint against Harris.
In one of the messages, sent a few days prior to the Feb. 23 meeting, Harris tells Breger that she must create a title for her presentation to the committee so Harris can put it on the agenda for the meeting.
“We are trying to think of something that won’t raise a red flag,” Breger responded. “Can we be completely vague and say something like ‘Presentation by Harris/Thaler law Corporation.’”
Harris said that Breger was somewhat of a last-minute addition to the agenda, after several other people who had planned to speak dropped out. Harris said she was under the impression that Breger would testify about a witness who reportedly saw a cache of ballots being kept outside of a Mesa residence, as well as about evidence of backdoor portals into the county computer systems in Maricopa, Yavapai, Yuma and Pima counties.
Harris told the committee she didn’t meet Breger until the weekend prior to the committee meeting.
Breger mentioned the alleged backdoor computer portal during her testimony, saying it was used in the housing deed scam, as well as to change election results. But she spent the majority of her time speaking about the housing scam.
In the texts, Harris said that all electronic presentations before the elections committees had to be submitted to Toma beforehand, and for that reason, she suggested supplying paper handouts instead. Harris explained to the Ethics Committee that she suggested paper handouts because of time constraints, not because she wanted to keep the content of the presentation from Toma.
Republican Sen. Ken Bennett eventually put an end to Breger’s testimony on Feb. 23, telling her she could not impugn members of the legislature.
Later, Harris texted Thaler and Breger saying, “I left there (the committee meeting) today with the thought that I would never go back.”
Harris told the Ethics Committee she was scared following the hearing and thought, “I’m about to be beheaded,” referring to what she feared would happen to her for inviting testimony alleging a housing fraud scheme involving the Sinaloa drug cartel.
“I didn’t want to come back because I knew that I’d be blamed for everything,” Harris explained.
In her formal response to the ethics complaint, Harris wrote that not only can the legislature not stop members of the public from expressing their grievances with the government, but the constitution required her to let Breger testify.
“If the people see issues that need strengthening with laws to block the danger of mal-administered elections and wish to freely inform the people and instruct the legislature, the only body empowered to investigate and write appropriate laws, they are free to approach their servants in the legislative body,” Harris wrote.
Despite Harris’ assertions to the contrary, the chairs of both the House and Senate election committees have significant power over who testifies during committee meetings, for how long they can speak and what they are allowed to say.
During a House Municipal Oversight and Elections Committee meeting on March 8, Republican committee chair Jacqueline Parker told liberal lobbyist Ben Scheel that he could not utter the phrase “conspiracy theory” while speaking before the committee. During the same meeting, Parker told him he wasn’t welcome to speak before the committee until he could learn to be more respectful.
Harris, who is a member of the committee, did not speak up in Scheel’s defense during that meeting, or a subsequent one during which Scheel was asked to leave after attempting to speak.
“You were brave,” Harris texted Breger after the Feb. 23 meeting. “I knew they would shut it down. Took them longer than I thought.”
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