Utah House Speaker Greg Curtis said Tuesday that he could not disclose or discuss in public his association with the land developer who is buying the St. George airport before the bids were opened, even though his private law firm is associated with that developer and St. George sought state aid in the deal.
On Monday, St. George officials announced that Anderson Development was the top bidder at $44 million to buy the old airport, which sits atop a bluff between St. George, Santa Clara and Bloomington in Washington County. Because of its beautiful location, the old airport is some of the most prime residential development land in southern Utah.
Curtis, R-Sandy, is one of four partners in Hutchings, Baird, Curtis and Astill. Michael L. Hutchings is a principal in Anderson Development, one of the state's fastest growing development firms. One of Anderson's largest projects is the redevelopment of the old Geneva Steel property near Orem.
"Anderson Development is one of our firm's major clients our largest client," said Curtis, who does some work for Anderson, but handles other clients as well. The law firm specializes in zoning, land use and development issues.
Curtis' written conflict of interest form filed with the Utah House lists his law firm and Anderson Development as one of its major clients. So the connection with Curtis and Anderson is well-known. What was not known at the time that legislative GOP leaders were considering whether the state should buy the old airport or not was that Anderson Development was one of the private bidders on the airport.
Ultimately, leaders and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. decided that the state didn't have the money to buy the old airport.
"What else is new," said Utah Democratic Party chairman Wayne Holland. "It is business as usual in the Legislature," where GOP lawmakers hold two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate. "No one knows what goes on behind closed doors up there and the Legislature is severely ethically challenged."
Also Tuesday, GOP House leaders with Curtis stepping out of a noon caucus so as not to influence debate asked fellow Republicans to approve $42 million in bonds to act as a "bridge loan" so St. George city can quickly move ahead with construction on a new $200 million airport.
Later Tuesday, on a bill that allows airports to qualify for state economic development incentives o but is not directly related to the St. George deal o Curtis verbally declared a conflict of interest from the floor and then voted against SB294, which then passed.
Several GOP caucus members said no to the "bridge loan" adding that St. George and Washington County got enough state aid during floods in the early 2000s. Some principle and interest on those state flood loans were forgiven by the Legislature, and were not repaid. "That is enough help," said Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville, for that part of the state.
Others complained that the Legislature shouldn't be asked with a day and a half left in the session to make such a major financial commitment the bridge loans to the city on something they had never heard about before.
It appears, however, that GOP legislators are preparing to give St. George the bridge loans, which will be repaid with interest in four or five years after Anderson Development takes control of the old airport and pays the city its money.
Meanwhile, Curtis said he knew that Anderson was one of the bidders but could not disclose that because "I did not know that (Anderson) would win the contract, and I was not at liberty to say what any of my clients may be bidding on" before bids are opened or otherwise made public.
Regardless of whether it was Anderson or some other client, or whether the state was going to be involved or not, Curtis said as a representing attorney he cannot discuss such possible conflicts in public before bids are opened.
In this case, it was up to Anderson and/or St. George officials to disclose who was bidding on the old airport, not Curtis himself, the speaker said. And that happened on Monday when city officials named the bid winner.
Anderson Development bid $44 million to take over the airport in three or four years, after the new airport northeast of town is built and operating. But even though the city is getting tens of millions of dollars from the federal government to build the new airport, it still needs millions of dollars more to make the deal work. And the city will only get a $1 million, non-refundable down payment from Anderson until Anderson gets control of the old airport land three or four years down the road.
Curtis said he learned over the weekend that Anderson Development likely would get the bid. Tuesday morning, Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, in a private joint leadership meeting between House and Senate GOP leaders, brought up the subject of the state making a bridge loan to St. George.
"When the topic came up, I excused myself from the room and went and read the newspaper in another room," said Curtis. "And I've asked other (leaders) not to mention or talk to me about this 'bridge loan' at all," Curtis added. Curtis also left the noon caucus meeting when the airport subject came up.
And House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, who of course backs the state's bonding for the airport in his city, said that Curtis has "lived up to ethical standards" in previous discussions about the airport.
Whether the state makes the bridge loan or St. George gets that financing in the private sector, once Anderson pays its $44 million for the old airport those loans will be paid back, House leaders said. The state runs no risk of losing any money, they added.
"The bridge loans have nothing to do with Anderson getting the contract" from the city, said Curtis.But they likely are needed for St. George to get the funds to complete the new airport, city officials and GOP leaders say.