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Greg Hughes

Utah House members will meet soon to start ethics investigations on two of their own — Reps. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Phil Riesen, D-Salt Lake.

The issues are seen by some fellow lawmakers as an ugly tit-for-tat that could harm real efforts of legislative ethics reform in the upcoming 2009 Legislature.

Hughes has been accused in a letter by former GOP House member Susan Lawrence, and in a formal ethics complaint signed by Riesen and two other House Democrats, of offering Lawrence tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions in 2006 if she would switch her vote on the controversial private school voucher issue.

Hughes is also accused of telling lobbyists they had better contribute to a pro-voucher political issues committee he set up to fight last year's anti-voucher citizen referendum, and of trying to discourage the candidacies of two anti-voucher GOP candidates who were to challenge conservative Republican House members who voted for the main voucher bill, HB148, in the 2007 Legislature.

The Democrats' complaint also says Hughes, who if re-elected next month could be the House Rules chairman, has told lobbyists that if they continued to take part in anti-voucher activities, House Rules could kill bills they support.

The Democrats ask for a special prosecutor to investigate Hughes, saying they don't know if the Legislature's own staff attorneys can do it. They also say that if any other lawmakers — members of GOP House and Senate leadership belonged to Hughes pro-voucher PIC — are found to be involved, they should automatically be investigated.

Hughes denies any wrongdoing by himself or others and says the Democrats' ethics complaint is political "character assassination."

In turn, Hughes and two GOP legislators accuse Riesen, a member of House Democratic leadership, of unethically leaking a possible ethics complaint against Hughes to the media earlier this week, and doing so just five weeks before the 2008 elections. Riesen also is accused of using outside attorneys to draft ethics documents and not listing those in-kind contributions on his financial disclosure statements.

Both ethics complaints can be viewed by clicking the graphic links on this story (above right).

Harsh words are flying among legislators from various sides, with some believing any "collegial," bipartisan feelings in the 75-member House are severely damaged.

Even so, House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, says that real ethical reform will come in the 2009 Legislature and was on its way before the accusations against Hughes even surfaced.

House and Senate GOP conservatives did pass a voucher bill in the 2007 Legislature. GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed it into law, but an anti-voucher movement quickly rose up. And voters repealed the voucher law by a nearly 2-to-1 vote last November.

Democrats are making those pro-voucher votes by GOP legislators an issue in upcoming legislative elections next month. There are partisan and bipartisan groups asking legislative candidates to sign "ethics reform" pledges. And Hughes points out that he's signed one such pledge.

Lawrence told the Deseret News Wednesday that she came forward now not to try to harm Hughes, whom she considers a friend, but because she wanted to help convince legislators "on both sides of the aisle" that real ethical reform is needed in the Legislature. "The people need to be able to reaffirm their belief in legislators — by far most of whom are good, honest (citizens) trying to do their best," she said.

Lawrence said she stands by her letter, which accuses Hughes of offering Lawrence considerable campaign cash, up to $50,000, if she would switch her anti-voucher vote, or at the very least just leave the House floor and not vote against a voucher bill.

Lawrence refused Hughes' offer twice, she writes, and was troubled by the offer. That is why she decided to step forward now, she said. However, Lawrence said that she didn't expect her letter to be released publicly, and only wrote it as proof to show lawmakers — as she puts it, "one small part of ethical lapses" — that she believes they need to deal with reform in the 2009 Legislature.

Riesen, Democratic caucus manager, apparently gave Lawrence's letter to KSL-TV, which ran a story on the issue Tuesday night. Riesen couldn't be reached for comment.

Lawrence said, "It is unfortunate that it was made public at this time — I hope it doesn't harm ethical reform, which we really need."

"I want an ethics committee public hearing immediately, within 48 hours," said Hughes. "I want to clear my good name" — which has been besmirched by Lawrence, Riesen and other legislators who believe the Lawrence letter, said Hughes.

Unfortunately, said Rep. Todd Kiser, R-Sandy, House Ethics Committee co-chairman, staff attorneys need time to review both complaints and no hearing can possiblly be held until next week, if even then.

Hughes asked for the ethics investigation on himself and Riesen, saying Lawrence "misunderstood" what he was saying. Lawrence countered: "I didn't say everything in the letter that happened. There was no misunderstanding, it was clear to both me and Greg what was being said."

Hughes said he understands that any number of legislators often "leak" information to the media. But he said Riesen's conduct is way out of line. He accuses Riesen of knowing that Lawrence didn't want her letter made public, that he arranged for TV cameras to film two House Democrats and one Republican leaving a Tuesday private meeting with House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, in which ethics concerns in general and Lawrence's concern specifically, were discussed, and generally orchestrating "an October surprise" attack on him personally that could lead to his defeat in his hotly contested race in House District 51.

"The clock is ticking on me. I'm under the gun," said Hughes. He believes he will be "completely cleared of any wrongdoing" by the ethics investigation, and the sooner the better.

"We have reached a new low in Utah politics," said Hughes. The allegations by Lawrence — whom Hughes still calls a friend — Riesen and others "is an abuse of the ethics process."

Still, Lawrence's letter, which she defended Wednesday, is harsh in its accusations against Hughes.

Lawrence said in her letter, which is dated Sept. 3, 2008: "In my conversation with Rep. Hughes (in the spring of 2006), he told me that if I were willing to change my position, on the school voucher issue, and vote in support of a bill on vouchers, to be introduced in the next session (in the 2007 session, where a voucher bill passed in the House by one vote), he knew where he could get me a large sum of money for my campaign. I think the amount he mentioned was around $50,000."

Lawrence said she asked where the money would be coming from. Hughes was vague, but hinted it would come from voucher supporters.

Judy Clark, executive director of Parents For Choice in Education, the main pro-voucher political issues committee, said her group did not discuss vouchers or campaign support with Lawrence, never gave her any money. "We respected her position, and did not engage her."

"Like other groups, we support like-minded people" who supported their goals, Clark said, as many other groups, including the anti-voucher Utah Education Association, does.

Lawrence said she told Hughes she wouldn't change her vote on vouchers. Later, Hughes approached her again and said he could get her some campaign cash if she would just agree to be absent from the voucher bill vote, Lawrence said.

"Again I expressed to him my decision, made before I was ever elected, that my vote would never be influenced by anything other than my conscience and my constituents," Lawrence wrote.

While Lawrence says Hughes offered her campaign cash, not personal cash, to change her vote, Utah law allows legislative candidates to spend their campaign money on anything, even just give it to themselves. Indeed, last year one House member gave himself $6,000 from his campaign account to make up for wages he said he lost by serving in the Legislature.

Hughes emphasized that Lawrence misunderstood his comments and he never asked her not to vote on the voucher bill. He said he told Lawrence she didn't have to be the "flag-carrier" for vouchers, she didn't have to be up front in the voucher fight. She apparently misunderstood that he was asking her to miss the voucher vote, and he didn't mean that at all, he said.

Riesen defeated Lawrence in the 2006 elections, so she never got a vote on the 2007 voucher bill.

Rep. Neil Hansen, D-Ogden, who signed the complaint against Hughes, says that there had been "scuttlebutt" for some time that campaign cash offers were made to 2006 legislative candidates if they would vote for vouchers. He named five races and candidates. However, a quick review of those candidates' financial filings show that while opponents to anti-voucher candidates/incumbents did get donations from pro-voucher groups, they were nowhere near $50,000. (One candidate got $10,000, while she got nearly $20,000 from Republican Party PACs and GOP legislators who wanted her to defeat the Democratic incumbent, normal contributions in a competitive race.)

Sen. Jon Greiner, R-Ogden, one of those alleged to have been approached by pro-voucher groups, said he was never approached because he was always anti-voucher. "Those groups gave to both my Republican and Democratic opponents, but not to me," he said.

Several legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, said it is common for special interest groups to provide campaign money to legislators and candidates who agree with their issues, but in their experience those donations are not connected to any specific vote, or set of votes. And while both pro- and anti-voucher groups have been, and are now, financially backing candidates who agree with their side on vouchers, no conditions are set on that support, in 2006 or now.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com