Lawmakers draft counter to ethics reform initiative

By By Chris Mumford, Staff Writer

By Chris Mumford, Staff Writer

Facing the prospect of a citizen initiative that would overhaul an ethics policy in the Utah Legislature, lawmakers have drafted an outline of a more mild counterproposal to at least partly heed calls for reform.

The lawmakers’ proposal and the citizen initiative, which is being pushed by Utahns for Ethical Government, would create a proposed independent ethics commission to review allegations of wrongdoing brought against legislators and suggest whether the existing legislative ethics committee should take punitive action, but similarities between the two proposals ends there.

The lawmakers’ counterproposal under discussion in the Legislature, according to a copy of the proposal obtained by The Daily Utah Chronicle, reflects the stark contrasts between elected officials and backers of the ethics reform initiative concerning the overall aim of ethics reform, which were on display at a Hinckley Institute of Politics debate on Nov. 3.

At the debate, Rep. Lorie Fowlke, R-Orem, and Republican Sen. Lyle Hillyard argued that ethics reform should target problems in ethics procedure, as opposed to the more fundamental and sweeping changes reflected in the initiative and favored by Utahns for Ethical Government, including an entirely new code of ethics.

“I believe that the Utahns for Ethical Government citizens’ initiative goes too far,” said Rep. Craig Frank, R-Cedar Hills. “It’s onerous, it’s tedious and it reaches way outside any logic that we should be imposing on legislative officials or elected officials for that matter.”

Handling ethics accusations

If passed, the citizens’ initiative would cap individual campaign contributions at $2,500 and at $5,000 for political action committees, as well as bar legislators from working as lobbyists during and two years following their tenure in government. It would further ban candidates from sharing campaign funds with each other and require members of a candidate’s immediate and extended family to disclose business and financial interests that could potentially raise ethical concerns.

By contrast, the lawmakers’ counterproposal focuses on creating protections for legislators against frivolous charges of ethical misconduct by, among other things, withholding details of ethics proceedings from the public in the 90 days before a primary or general election in an effort to stem their use as a political tool to smear the opposition.

In the event that information that the proposed independent ethics commission or the Legislature’s existing ethics committee declares private, and it is released to the public, the lawmakers’ counterproposal dictates that the ethics complaint should be summarily dismissed. Likewise, if the proposed independent ethics commission determines that no violation occurred, the records of the review are to be kept private under the proposal.

Ethics proceedings would become public only once they’ve cleared the proposed independent ethics commission and are debated in the Legislature’s existing ethics committee, as required by the Open Meetings Act.

The counterproposal also makes the individual or individuals who bring an allegation against a legislator responsible for their own attorney’s fees, while waiving those costs for the targeted legislator if he or she is cleared of wrongdoing.

“If they’re following the code of conduct, there’s not going to be a flurry of suits. All they have to do is follow the code,” said Dixie Huefner, communications chairwoman for UEG and a professor of special education at the U.

A pending battle

Huefner and her fellow backers of the ethics reform initiative feel the lawmakers’ counterproposal, like past efforts at ethics reform, fails to accomplish anything substantive.

“(Legislators) have been backing into this in little tiny steps and essentially doing very minor things,” Huefner said. Under the initiative, politicians could seek the opinion of the proposed independent commission when they have concerns over an ethical issue, she said.

Huefner said replacing the Legislature’s code of ethics would go a long way toward minimizing complaints that are frivolous or politically motivated while ensuring valid allegations are dealt with properly.

Under both proposals, the independent commission would only have power to make recommendations to the Legislature, leaving the ultimate decision of whether or not to take punitive action to a partisan vote.

Huefner acknowledged that this isn’t ideal, but said the function of the existing commission and its relationship with the Legislature is only one of the initiative’s comprehensive reforms. Moreover, she said, if action for an ethics violation were quashed on the basis of partisan politics, the public would at least be aware of that fact.

“I think (legislators) are just afraid of the public,” she said.

In light of legislators’ desire for smaller reforms and UEG’s support for the opposite, Frank said the issue is likely to land somewhere between the two.

“We will have to adopt different guidelines that we have currently and we will certainly adopt more guidelines in the future,” he said.

One future change could come from legislation Frank will be pushing based on a host of recommendations on campaign finance and other policy areas produced by the Governor’s Commission On Strengthening Utah’s Democracy, which Hinckley Director Kirk Jowers chairs.

[email protected]