With a far-reaching citizen initiative breathing down their necks, members of a special legislative ethics committee decided Wednesday that a "screening" commission should be set up to privately hear complaints against lawmakers, and determine if the complaints are worthy of further consideration.
From discussion among the evenly split Ethics Interim Study Committee, it is clear that some Democratic members want the public to be able to make a complaint against a lawmaker, while some Republicans say that could be "extremely dangerous."
Only legislators themselves — as is now the case — should be able to bring a complaint against a fellow legislator, said Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane.
House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, proposed that the independent screening commission consist of five members: three former judges and two former legislators, one a Republican, the other a Democrat.
The commission would hear any ethics complaints brought against a legislator, and decide whether they have merit or should be immediately dismissed. The complaint and the commission's hearings would be confidential, with penalties for anyone who talked publicly about the complaint.
If the complaint has merit, the commission would send it on to either the House Ethics Committee or the Senate Ethics Committee, depending on whether the accused is a representative or a senator. Those hearings, unlike now, would be public, said Garn in an interview.
Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, said he wants the committee to consider his SB101, a bill he filed in the 2009 Legislature that went nowhere. That bill also sets up an independent screening panel, but would allow any member of the public to make a complaint.
But several GOP members of the study committee said that was a bad idea, that anyone could repeatedly make false claims, for political or personal reasons, against a sitting legislator.
However, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, said it is critical in the effort of the Legislature to win back the public trust in ethical matters to have constituents able to make a complaint against a legislator.
"It is abundantly clear that we have to provide the greatest amount of accessibility to citizens," said King, an attorney.
He said that, yes, there could be an initial flood of frivolous complaints brought by "wingnuts" or others with questionable mental abilities. But those would shake out over time, and people would identify those groups or individuals that bring baseless complaints time and again, he added.
Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, said "there is some danger" in allowing anyone to bring an ethics complaint against a legislator. But if the Legislature itself wrote clear, good standards of official conduct with equally clear standards of proof, then residents and the independent screening commission would see which complaints had value, and which did not.
"Maybe I'm the eternal optimist," Killpack said. "But that could limit frivolous complaints and level this out over time."
Following high-profile ethics complaints last summer, just before the 2008 elections, both legislators and political observers agreed that something needs to be done about the current ethics process. The question is what.
Just a few months ago, a group calling itself Utahns for Ethical Government announced it would try to gather 95,000 voter signatures and put on the 2010 ballot a far-reaching legislative ethics initiative.
A new Desert News/KSL-TV poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates finds that 85 percent of Utahns like the idea of an independent ethics commission that would investigate charges of lawmaker wrongdoing and make recommendations for discipline to the Legislature.
Garn's and McCoy's proposals differ from the initiative in a number of areas, most notably that their independent commissions wouldn't do the majority of the investigation into complaints, but only screen complaints. And their commissions wouldn't recommend any kind of discipline for wayward legislators, just recommend that the complaint has some merit and should be dealt with by the current House and Senate ethics committees.
Both Republican and Democratic members of the interim ethics study group said they want a "committee bill" that, hopefully, has the support of all committee members.
To get Democratic support that may require that the committee bill allow citizen complaints against legislators. But the majority Republicans in the House and Senate could always remove that provision in the 2010 Legislature, if most of them didn't like it.
Both the House and Senate GOP caucuses discussed the ethics initiative Wednesday afternoon, the Senate in a closed caucus, the House in an open caucus.
Killpack said all current members of the Legislature "could be rendered ineligible to run for office again" because actions taken on behalf of constituents could be seen as attempts to gain political advantage.
But Killpack said any formal opposition by the caucus to the initiative "could easily appear as whining from the Legislature." Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said that could even help the initiative effort.
House GOP leaders asked each of their 53 members to attend in their areas the public meetings held by the initiative's sponsors, Utahns for Ethical Government.
By law, UEG must hold seven meetings across the state, the first one being held this week.
House Majority Whip Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, passed out a copy of the initiative and asked each member to read and study it. Dee said when he's asked residents about the initiative, they tend to support it. "But they haven't read it." When they do, he said, many change their mind, seeing how far-reaching it is.
Dee added that if caucus members agree, leaders will invite the petition organizers (one is a former GOP House member) to come explain their reasons for the petition and answer questions.
"Attend these public meetings, ask questions about" the parts of the initiative "that concern you," said Dee to his colleagues.
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche