Former Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow appear in court for the first time on Wednesday, July 30. They will have the opportunity to begin answering their accusers in a court of law. While they are entitled to a legal presumption of innocence, Gov. Gary Herbert has called their indictment on multiple felony counts a “black eye” for the state of Utah. It is time for the Legislature to consider meaningful campaign finance disclosure reforms.
Of the ways in which corruption and the appearance of corruption may be addressed, the challenge is sorting out the costs from the benefits.
When Shurtleff and Swallow were arrested earlier this month, we suggested that the state “should seriously consider making the attorney general a position that is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature.” Following the lead of our federal Constitution, doing so would remove the attorney general from the campaigns and election, making it harder for interested parties to buy influence by means of campaign donations. At the same time, that approach could also create challenges should the attorney general find it necessary to investigate the governor’s office. Any solution would have to recognize that reality and adjust accordingly.
We also noted that Utah is one of four states without dollar limits on campaign contributions to state candidates. Placing such limits might make it more difficult for interested individuals to implicitly curry favor with, and obtain access to, individuals with political power. But laws limiting campaign donations can be vulnerable to the challenge that they impinge upon the First Amendment’s right to the freedom of speech. We are reluctant to support any measure that would erode such fundamental freedoms.
Perhaps the clearest place to begin is to increase the transparency of those donating to political campaigns. In the age of the Internet, donors and the amounts they’ve given can be put online within 24 hours, and the public at large can have the opportunity to immediately discover from whom candidates are getting financial support.
Some are concerned that this would put donors under a great deal of scrutiny, and they’re exactly right. But such scrutiny is a necessary component of our electoral system. The public will have the opportunity to judge for themselves whether or not a large donation is cause for concern. If someone is making an effort to peddle influence with a candidate through campaign contributions, they’ll have to do so in the broad sunlight of democracy.
The state is now just at the beginning of this conversation. Many proposals and compromises will rise and fall along the way. Yet it is important that the conversation continue. We must find means and solutions that will aid in restoring the public trust.