Senate panel advances bill for executive branch ethics commission

Published: Friday, March 1 2013 2:53 p.m. MST

The Utah State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A Senate committee endorsed a bill Friday that would create an independent ethics commission in the state's executive branch of government.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, drafted the measure in the wake of allegations of improper conduct against Utah Attorney General John Swallow.

"This has been an evolution for the state," said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who worked with Valentine in creating similar panels in the Legislature and local government a few years ago. "This has been some time in coming, and I think it's appropriate."

Currently, residents have no avenue outside the courts to initiate a complaint against the state's five top elected executives — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer and auditor.

SB86, which received unanimous support in the Senate Retirement and Independent Entities Committee, would create a five-member ethics commission comprised of two former lawmakers, two residents and either a retired judge or attorney. The panel would investigate formal complaints of high crimes, misdemeanors and malfeasance in office. It would have subpoena power to call witnesses and produce evidence.

Should the bill pass, it would take effect May 14 and not be retroactive. Valentine said the commission would only investigate alleged actions occurring after that date, meaning it could not be applied to Swallow.

The FBI and the Department of Justice are investigating Swallow's involvement with indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson. They also are looking into his dealings with political campaign contributors.

Johnson claims Swallow helped set up a $600,000 payment to enlist Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in an effort to thwart a possible Federal Trade Commission complaint against Johnson's Internet marketing company. Swallow adamantly denies the allegations. Reid has disavowed any knowledge of Johnson's case.

Swallow also acknowledged being paid as a consultant on a Nevada cement project while serving as chief deputy attorney general.

Rep. Todd Weiler, R-Wood Cross, has a bill to prohibit the kind of outside work Swallow did.

SB83 would restrict outside employment for management-level workers in the state's executive branch, specifically the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer and auditor. It would require those offices to have policies to prevent conflicts of interest with employees' job duties, the practice of law and political services, consulting and lobbying.

Both bills are awaiting consideration in the Senate.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com, Twitter: dennisromboy

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