Honestly, where do they find the nerve? How do the people we elect continue to line up for freebies, perks and quid pro quo handouts from lobbyists, while never seeming to suffer a pang of conscience in the process? At some point, voters have to start getting really, really bent. Are we there yet?
The latest case for hard-core ethics reform in Utah politics comes in the form of a July 10 lobbyist disclosure report, routinely required by the lieutenant governor’s office. As always, reports of free lunches, golf games and sports tickets to lawmakers pepper the online form. But two standouts made the list this time: Senators Ross Romero and Scott McCoy. Both are Democrats representing politically active east-side Salt Lake City districts. And both have been loud and proud advocates of ethics reform.
Which is why, when both accepted free tickets from Micron Technology’s lobbyist to a Utah Jazz-L.A. Lakers playoff game a few months back, the revelation gurgled up hypocrisy. Romero and McCoy accepted the gifts along with five other legislators, all Republicans, and none of them surprises. They gobble at the lobbyists’ trough year after year.
Micron’s lobbyist is Stan Lockhart, who also happens to be the GOP state chairman. His wife Becky is a Republican legislator from Orem. Nevertheless, Romero, McCoy and their Republican colleagues accepted a night in the Micron corporate suite at EnergySolutions Arena. Estimated total value: $960.
I’ve hammered Republicans pretty freely in this space, but this is an equal opportunity topic. This state’s dismal lack of ethics rules for legislators is a huge embarrassment. Looking at ethics watchdogs Romero and McCoy schmoozing with Lockhart shows how easily even the purest sorts can begin to lose their way.
So I called Romero and McCoy, basically to ask them: What were you thinking?
“I received an invitation to attend a Jazz playoff game in the Micron suite. It was just myself,” Romero said. “It was a last-minute invitation, and I didn’t have a ticket. When it was offered, I considered it a nice invitation and accepted.”
He said he can “appreciate” how the public might perceive the gift implies favoritism toward Micron-backed legislation. “But to my knowledge, Micron wasn’t asking anything of the Legislature in the last session. They hadn’t talked to me before or after [the Jazz game] about anything that related to legislation.”
And then it came. Romero, a smart attorney who had been schooled in the ways of political ethics years ago as an intern through the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, offered the typical excuse all legislators have given for questionable ethics since time began: Lobbyists, with their nice expense accounts and tokens of appreciation are just like everyone else.
“Not everyone is aware of the legislative process,” Romero said. “I am very responsive to all constituents, and my accessibility extends to all who are part of a policy discussion. Those also happen to be lobbyists.”
McCoy, whom I telephoned at two numbers and e-mailed, did not respond before publication deadline.
Look. Everyone is corruptible. Sometimes it’s a slow process. A squeakyclean rookie, all Mr. Smith and ready to take on Washington, thinks he’ll be the exception. “I’m sick of the conversation over whether an elected official can be swayed by a peanut butter sandwich, or a steak dinner, or tickets to a Jazz game,” says Ethan Millard, co- host of KSL Radio’s Nightside Project. “When is it enough? Do you draw the line at tickets on the [playing] floor? It’s ridiculous.
“When we elect these people we give them the authority to act on our behalf and I’m pretty sure we didn’t give them a commodity to sell down the line when they found it convenient.”
Here are a couple of suggestions. It’s time for a complete ban on gifts from lobbyists at the Legislature. That’s it. No lunches, no Jazz tickets, no tee times at Thanksgiving Point. Somehow, Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County employees operate under a strict no-gifts policy. And that’s everyone—elected or not.
Next, it’s time that state House and Senate ethics committees met on a regular basis. The fact that the House panel met for the first time in more than 10 years on the Walker matter should say something about the lightweight nature of ethics in Utah politics. If the panel met regularly to consider even slight ethical lapses, the message might get out that we expect decent behavior from our officials, and all the time.
Romero told me he’s heard almost nothing from his district constituents about the Jazz ticket. “If they tell me they are highly frustrated, then I will listen.”
Well, it so happens I live in Ross Romero’s district. And in case he couldn’t tell, I’m frustrated.