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Bob Bernick Jr.: Despite what rules say, conflict of interest clear

Published: Friday, Oct. 19 2007 12:24 a.m. MDT

This past week, Utahns got a clear look at what is increasingly becoming a sensitive issue in the state Legislature: conflicts of interest among the 104 part-time lawmakers.

This newspaper broke the story locally of two lawmakers who have clear dealings with an attempt to build a nuclear-powered electrical generation plant in Utah.

Yet both men did not publicly disclose those efforts, even though one co-chairs an interim study committee that is holding nuclear power hearings and the other sits on that committee.

And both men steadfastly maintain that they did not break any legislative conflict of interest rules.

The public brouhaha that has erupted in Capitol hallways is leaving both citizens and other legislators shaking their heads, all saying the same thing: If this is not a conflict of interest under legislative rules, then clearly legislative rules are ineffective on conflicts of interest.

While many may agree that conflict of interest rules may be ineffective — not only for Reps. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, and Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, but for every other legislator — don't hold your breath on any rule changes.

When confronted with clear conflicts of interests, legislators have a standard response: circle the wagons, deny there is a conflict, blame the media and move on.

Move on to more conflicts of interests, more distrust of lawmakers and the legislative process.

I'll let you decide if there are conflicts for Noel and Tilton.

Quick facts: Tilton, whose private job is consulting on energy producing projects, like coal-fired electrical plants, in February started a new firm, Transition Power Development LLC. Its goal is to get a new nuclear power plant licensed in Utah (location not yet decided). He and his partners (he names one, but refuses to say who is backing the project financially) would then sell that license to an entity that would actually build the $3 billion plant. Tilton didn't amend his written conflict of interest form listing TPD until last week.

Noel is an environmental consultant and director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District.

Tilton's TPD recently signed an agreement with the water district, making a $10,000 down payment, to buy up to 30,000 acre feet of water each year for the nuclear plant. It is planned that TPD will pay the district $100,000 a year for five years, then $500,000 a year until the plant comes online, and then $1 million a year after that for water.

Noel says he has no conflict of interest because he gets a set salary from the district, and even if it gets $1 million annual payments from Tilton's group, he won't make any more money. Thus, he doesn't have a financial interest in the nuclear power plant, and thus no conflict under legislative rules.

Tilton says the public utilities committee he sits on — and Noel co-chairs — is only looking at helping a public utility build a nuclear power plant in Utah. Since TPD is not a licensed public utility, he has no conflict under legislative rules. Of course, TPD may well sell its nuclear power license to a public utility at some point, but that is not a given.

They both say — with straight faces — that they have no conflict of interests under legislative rules.

If that is true, then Utah lawmakers should do away with their watered-down, ineffective conflict of interest rules.

What good are they — except maybe to trick citizens into believing the Legislature actually has some conflict of interest rules, and thus to shield lawmakers from any claims of having real conflicts of interest?

I mean, come on. If these two guys don't have clear conflicts of interests on Utah developing nuclear power, then legislators are not living in the real world their constituents face each day.

Nationally, Democrats ran a 2006 campaign on corruption in Congress and the GOP-controlled government. Along with other issues, like the Iraq war, it led them to take over both houses of Congress.

But don't expect a similar "anti-corruption" campaign by Democrats in the Utah Legislature. In part, because a number of legislative Democrats, especially in the Senate, have fully joined the good-ol'-boy network — hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

It's true that with a citizen government you are bound to have conflicts of interests — as the ranks are filled by part-time lawmakers who go home to be farmers, insurance agents, cops, lawyers, teachers, bankers and small-business men and women.

And it's true that any conflict of interest rules may by nature have some fuzzy lines.

But Noel's and Tilton's conflicts are not fuzzy.

And the Utah Legislature's conflict of interest rules appear meaningless.


Deseret Morning News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com

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