News | Cleaning House: 2008 brings a push for legislative ethics reform'again | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

News | Cleaning House: 2008 brings a push for legislative ethics reform'again 

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Before taking the reins at conservative Utah think tank The Sutherland Institute, Paul Mero was an aide to a congressman who got caught up in the House Post Office check-kiting scandal of the early ’90s.

Against Mero’s advice, the congressman insisted on going on Rush Limbaugh to explain that his wife just floated a few checks. “Limbaugh let him talk for three minutes, then there is silence,” Mero recalls. “Limbaugh says, ‘Congressman, you don’t get it. I don’t care if you’re different. The American people just want to know why you have a separate bank.’”

Politicians, Mero says, “become so insulated in their own world, they create their own rules.”

That’s why Mero thinks a new wave of ethics reforms proposed by his “friends” leading Utah’s Legislature don’t go far enough to clear the latest round of lawmaker scandals.

Following recent news reports of questionable business dealings by Utah lawmakers, Mero has added his conservative voice to those calling—once again—for a clean-up of ethics at the Utah Legislature—ranked by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity as the fourth worst in the nation for lax conflict of interest rules.

One proposed fix comes from Senate Majority Leader Curtis Bramble, R-Provo. When the Legislature convenes on Jan. 21, he’ll propose changing rules so lawmakers could skip voting on bills that conflict with their businesses. Current rules force all lawmakers to vote on every bill. In Bramble’s plan, leaders of the House and Senate would determine when lawmakers have a real conflict or are trying to duck a controversial vote.

For Mero, that isn’t good enough. Turning legislative leaders into ethics judges lets individual members off the hook and doesn’t help members understand right from wrong.

“I object to the idea that the Senate or House leadership are the arbiters of ethics. We can fool ourselves by saying, ‘We’re honest people; let us take care of it,’” Mero says. “Our founding fathers were honest people, and yet, they bent over backwards to invoke checks and balances.”

Mero says legislative leadership should interview all members of their parties about potential conflicts. Then, he says, leaders should keep conflicted lawmakers off policy-making committees that touch on their own businesses.

The old argument in favor of a part-time citizen legislature—that lawmakers who have real-world jobs can inform policy in their industries—doesn’t fly anymore, Mero says.

“If someone has an insurance business, they tend to get appointed to committees of insurance; doctors end up on health and human service committees. The reality is the institution is better off if those kinds of individuals are assigned to diverse committees.”

Rep. Roz McGee, D-Salt Lake City, wants a complete rewrite of the Legislature’s ethics process and an end to lawmakers investigating themselves. She’ll offer a bill to create a new outside commission that would field ethics complaints from lawmakers or the public. Such commissions exist in 33 other states.

Currently, the Utah Legislature’s House and Senate each have ethics committees, but they exist mostly only in theory. The committees look into alleged ethical violations of members only after receiving three complaints about the same lawmaker. Complaints must come from legislators, not the public, and Utah legislators historically haven’t been keen on turning each other in.

The last time one of the secretive committees is known to have investigated was eight years ago, when the House Ethics Committee looked into reports that then-House Speaker Mel Brown had discussed a job with a lobbyist. No action was taken. The only other case in the decade came in 1991 when the House committee examined a member’s shoplifting charge.

“My sense is that legislators are perhaps reluctant to use the committee,” McGee says. “I’m wondering about its effectiveness.” McGee notes the Legislature hasn’t been shy about reviewing the ethics of other branches of government. Lawmakers set up a commission to review conduct of judges. And there’s a new proposal to put lawmakers on a committee that writes reviews of judges for the voting public.

McGee’s proposed ethics commission would be made up of five members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. It would have authority over legislators and state elected officials, including the governor, and could look into alleged violations of lobbying rules in addition to broader ethical complaints.

Former legislator Jordan Tanner says any ethics tightening would be welcome. He began writing ethics-reform bills in the 1990s after listening to a fellow lawmaker give a speech about the environmental virtues of a bill to promote tire recycling. He voted for the bill only to find out, later, the speaker was in the tire-recycling business.

Not much has changed, says Tanner who saw most of his ethics efforts go up in flames. Last year’s Legislature passed ethics overhauls that now require lawmakers to report any gift from a lobbyist worth more than $10. That’s peanuts, says Tanner, who points out Utah has no limits on how much money can be donated to a lawmaker’s campaign and no “cooling off” period before a retiring lawmaker can become a lobbyist.

“Meaningful conflict of interest and campaign finance reform are two major issues the Legislature has never been willing to tackle,” he says.

“I got so tired of hearing Legislators say, ‘Rep. Tanner, are you accusing me of being dishonest?’ It has nothing to do with that. Legislative ethics reform is simply good government and is there to protect the Legislature as well as the public. We really need some heavy-duty legislation.”

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