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Move a Few Chairs 

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I didn’t mean to do it. I must have tried that one on my parents a hundred times. Didn’t work then, doesn’t even work now—and when it comes to public officials, it should never work.

Salt Lake County Council members Joe Hatch and Randy Horiuchi think otherwise, apparently. They have fallen back on the canard of that childish excuse to justify weakening campaign-disclosure rules.

The two Democrats have concocted a proposal to reduce “unintentional” campaign violations from a class B misdemeanor to an infraction. The plan stems from the mere potential that low-grade criminal charges could be filed against two aides to County Mayor Nancy Workman who, in their capacity as heads of a political action committee called Friends of Salt Lake County, distributed money to candidates before announcing the committee’s existence. In a state with some of the weakest ethics laws in the nation, the last thing Utahns need is elected officials trying to make them weaker.

In the latest studies of campaign finance and conflict of interest laws by the Center for Public Integrity, Utah ranked 43rd and 49th, respectively. Sorta does one proud.

After the latest dust-up over a proposed luxury-housing development at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon, you’d think the council would be going out of its way to demonstrate its ethical bona fides. The development, pushed by developer Terry Diehl, owner of Wasatch Pacific, has received approval for 15 variances from county planners. Diehl was Horiuchi’s campaign finance chairman in the last election, and Horiuchi has acknowledged discussing the development with three planners. Is that not a conflict of interest?

There is a prevailing sense in this state that Utahns don’t need ethics laws. Lawmakers have been known to get their garments all in a bunch when such laws are proposed, feeling that their personal integrity is being called into question.

It brings to mind my ninth-grade civics teacher, who, as he was about to distribute an important test in the classroom, declared to us all that he trusted us not to cheat. He then smiled and moved everyone around the room so that each of us sat as far from another student as possible. “Now that I’ve established why I trust you, ...” he said.

Utahns are a trusting lot, perhaps a little too much so, but trust alone has not served to keep government honest. Like Ronald Reagan used to say about arms control: Trust, but verify. And one might add: prosecute.

The Hatch/Horiuchi proposal sends exactly the wrong message—that government will wink and slap a wrist here and there when election rules are broken. They should be doing the opposite: making examples of a few miscreants. And they should go beyond that. County election rules need to be strengthened with fund-raising limits. There need to be stronger rules on conflicts of ethics and legal discouragement of revolving doors that allow elected officials to get cozy with—and later employed by—the businesses they regulate.

Whenever they can, elected officials should find ways to demonstrate their commitment to open and honest government instead of looking to cut ethical corners. It is simply not good enough to assume that higher standards will prevail, especially when every day brings a new headline about ethical lapses. A few chairs need to be moved around the room.

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About The Author

John Yewell

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