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The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Silence on ethics reform speaks volumes

By Joseph Simmons

I can understand why our state legislators are so sensitive when it comes to the initiative for ethics reform from the Utahns for Ethical Government. No one wants to be the guy (or gal) who stands up and says unequivocally, “I oppose the proposed ethics reform.” It just sounds bad, doesn’t it?

It makes sense to me that most of the legislators I spoke to were only willing to talk off the record or gave me selective, pointless answers. For example, when I asked Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, why he thought this initiative was brought before the people and Legislature, he gave me what I think was a tip on news gathering.

“You would need to ask the sponsors why they drafted it,” Bramble said during our text-message interview.

Well duh, senator. My efforts to gather “both sides of the story” were difficult, to say the least, because one side seems unwilling to talk.

Bramble’s response though, I believe, is representative of the Legislature’s collective response to, and failure in dealing with, the UEG ballot initiative. No one seems to be willing to sit down and talk about it.

In trying to better understand the initiative, I met with Dixie Huefner, communication chairwoman for UEG. I took with me a copy of an overview of a proposed senate and house ethics complaint process from the Legislature. Huefner didn’t mince words in summing up the proposal.

“It’s very, very weak compared to (the initiative),” she said.

I have to say, after having read through them both, she’s right. The UEG initiative isn’t perfect by any means, but when comparing the two side by side, it’s clear which would be better for Utah politics.

To be fair, I’m impressed there are politicians who are at least making some effort to do something in the name of ethics. However, the proposal focuses almost completely on the complaint process and doesn’t pay much attention to what should or shouldn’t be complained about.

In the proposal, it reads that a legislator is subject to an ethics complaint for “violating a provision of the Code of Official Conduct; conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude; or entering a plea of guilty, a plea of no contest, or a plea in abeyance to a crime involving moral turpitude.”

The problem I see with this is that Utah doesn’t seem to have a clear, defined code of official conduct. Although Title 67, chapter 16 of the Utah Code does address ethics, it doesn’t actually have a clear code of conduct, and it was written more than 20 years ago.

Just last year, the Legislature made sure to clarify that the Utah governor doesn’t have jurisdiction over “historic color schemes, decorative finishes and stenciling in the governor area,” (Utah Code 67-1-16(5)(ii)) but hasn’t bothered to address whether or not it’s ethical for him to charge $10,000, $25,000 or $50,000 for dinner and face time at a gala. If there isn’t going to be some sort of look at what kind of conduct is unacceptable for a politician to engage in, there isn’t a whole lot that a process will accomplish.

“(The proposal) is not revising the code of conduct,” Huefner said. “What good is it to have an independent ethics commission if you don’t have a clear, specific code of conduct that you’re using as your standard when you get a complaint?”

Initiative opponents are concerned about the initiative’s language and believe that even though its language is explicit, it would impose broad, unreasonable and unconstitutional reform, which could be used in political manipulation. There are parts of the initiative that I believe overreach in the fight for transparency. However, legislators would do well to focus on the specific parts of the initiative and not the motives of UEG.

Huefner said UEG is aware that the initiative is not perfect, and that there will no doubt be a learning process if it becomes law, but that it’s not a political witch hunt or smear campaign.

“We’re not trying to oust anybody. We’re not trying to get anybody. We’re trying to change behavior,” Huefner said. “If they would honor this code, it’s not a political weapon, it’s a way to advance the understanding of ethics both in the legislature and in the public at large.”

One can ask why, then, has there been such a negative initial reaction from Utah politicians?

“I think they’re just afraid of the public,” Huefner said. “They are not crediting the legitimate motivation and important purposes of this initiative.”

At this point, I’m inclined to agree with Huefner and the UEG, and I will remain so until I see substantial reform from the Legislature for not just the ethics complaint process but in a code of ethical conduct in bill form. Utah politicians like Bramble can send citizen or press inquiries right back to the UEG until next November if they want. However, if they want to have any sort of legitimate role in ethics reform in Utah, they should get involved and start going on the record in the issue now.

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