Late June at the South Temple offices of David Irvine, lawyer and former four-term Republican member of the Utah Legislature, a group of current state lawmakers—two moderate Republicans and three Democrats—debated whether to pull the trigger on a formal complaint they had prepared accusing a powerful legislator of offering a bribe.
It meant forcing a meeting of the Legislature’s House Ethics Committee for the first time in 10 years and going up against the Conservative Caucus in control of the Legislature. From the sound of it, some in the meeting were ready to pee their pants.
“This group of lawmakers was really stewing about what they ought to do. It was right down to the wire. ‘Do we?’ ‘Don’t we? My God, what’s going to happen?’” Irving recalls. First-term Rep. Phil Riesen, D-Salt Lake City, ended the discussion: “He just finally said, ‘Look we can come up with all kinds of reasons why this is not the smart thing to do, why it’s not the political thing to do, why it will be dangerous to do. But, in the long run, if we don’t file this complaint, who’s going to? How much longer can we tolerate these kind of assaults on legislative integrity?’”
It didn’t turn out well. Just one week after the crusading lawmakers filed their first ethics complaint, one of their number was outed in the press on allegations that he had groped a college intern many months earlier. Riesen, a former TV newsman, found himself the target of a return ethics complaint filed by one of the two lawmakers he and the others had accused. A confused House Ethics Committee ended up splitting on straight Democrat-vs.-Republican lines and largely let off the hook the subjects of the group’s bribery complaints.
But then, the lawmakers who filed the complaints never expected it to work.
“We absolutely knew that this was a kangaroo court,” Irvine says, in the weeks leading up to the start of the 2009 Legislature. The hope was that exposing the Legislature’s ethical morass would force the body to deal with what the complainants characterize as a deep flaw in the leadership culture—a reliance on strong-arm tactics lubricated with unregulated campaign cash to amass and keep power, all while keeping the public out.
In that, they may just have succeeded. More than 40 ethics “reform” bills have been filed for the 2009 Legislature. New Republican leaders of the House and Senate have already agreed on a fast-track ethics package. But not everyone is convinced the mop-up is real.
If it all sounds like a rerun, your instincts are right. Ethics reform was at the top of the agenda for House Republican lawmakers in 2008, and the year before. In 2007 some laws actually passed to tighten up what had traditionally been among the country’s laxest rules about money in politics. But that only helped Utah earn a D- grade, up from it’s traditional F, in a comparison of state ethics laws by the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Los Angeles.
As in years past, the 2009 ethics debate will mostly be about whether or not lawmakers can accept lobbyists’ gifts worth $10 or $50 and whether or not there should be a waiting period before legislators become lobbyists. Meanwhile, unlike almost anywhere else in the country, state officials in Utah remain free to take as much campaign money as they can from any source. And little is said officially about the practice of Utah lawmakers simultaneously joining the payrolls of powerful business interests, or pushing laws to favor businesses they own.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is among those who have had enough. Even as lawmakers slog through their regular session, Huntsman is firing up a blue-ribbon commission that promises to look not only at how lawmakers raise and spend campaign cash but at the whole system by which the old boys and girls get and keep power—from neighborhood-basement caucuses that choose elected officials before any vote has been cast to a legislator-controlled district-drawing system that carves out “safe” seats for lawmakers. Legislative leaders have already signaled they will protect their turf. It looks like there will be some bloodletting on Capitol Hill before the clean-up crew arrives.
Irvine, still smarting from a disappointing encounter with the House Ethics Committee, isn’t hopeful. He came away from the ethics committee meetings believing the system lawmakers have set up to judge their peers is rigged to virtually guarantee acquittal.
“There is no way in hell that we could have produced evidence of the degree of certitude [demanded by the committee] without introducing a videotape of [one accused lawmaker] handing a bag of money,” Irvine says. The “shell game” process is “a get–out-of-jail-free card … deliberately intended to make any finding of culpability impossible.”
He predicts no change this year. The only way to get ethics reform, he says, is to take policing lawmakers conduct out of lawmakers' hands and give it to an independent body. “I don’t think there will be much stomach for that,” Irvine says. “If there is, I suspect they will try to rig it.”