Keeping a promise made publicly in early June, the Utah Republican Party filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, on Thursday, claiming Owens illegally used "outside money" in preparing his CUP bill and dishonored the House in the process.
The complaint is serious, even if it is colored by election-year politics. While in years past several Utah congressman have left office in disgrace, no Utah congressman has had a formal ethics violation filed against him.
Owens denies any wrongdoing. Both he and GOP state chairman Craig Moody, who filed the complaint on behalf of the Republican Party, want a speedy hearing on the matter.
"We want this resolved before the election because we think the evidence is clear and overpowering. We expect the congressman to be censured by the House, and voters should know that before the election," said Moody.
Owens believes he will be completely exonerated. And he wants that done before the Nov. 8 election, also.
"They filed this frivolous complaint the last day before we adjourn for 30 days. They (Republicans) will have at least a month to dwell on this before it can even be heard and dismissed. It is blatant partisanship," said Owens.
Moody originally said in early June that the complaint would be filed in a week or two. But politics surrounding the continued funding of the Central Utah Project interfered. The charges against Owens deal with the preparation of his CUP bill, and Moody said he didn't want the ethics charge to harm the chances of the massive water project's reauthorization.
A substitute CUP bill _ not Owens' original bill _ was heard Wednesday by a House committee.
The complaint goes to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, U.S. House of Representatives. A committee staff member, who asked his name not be used, said the committee chairman and the ranking minority member will review the complaint and schedule hearings. The whole committee, of which Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, is a member, can dismiss any complaint at any time for lack of evidence, he said.
Much of Moody's "evidence" consists of newspaper and television reports on how Owens' friend, former law partner and campaign manager, Kenley W. Brunsdale, participated in the drafting of Owens' CUP bill.
Brunsdale, a private attorney, is a part-time lobbyist for Utah Power & Light Co., which is interested in how electricity produced by Colorado River hydroelectric plants is distributed. The CUP is part of the federal government's Upper Colorado River water projects.
Brunsdale is also the chairman of the Utah Roundtable of Sportsmen and Conservationists _ a group that wants streams and mountains affected by the CUP preserved for wildlife. A controversial part of Owens' CUP bill would have raised hydroelectric power rates for public power agencies _ competitors of UP&L _ and used some of that new revenue to enhance stream flows and protect the environment _ goals of the roundtable group.
Moody's complaint says: "Brunsdale . . . drafted legislation for and on behalf of the congressman (the CUP bill), coordinated activities relating to the same legislation on behalf of the congressman, represented the congressman's position on various water issues, was assigned office space in the congressman's office and in general functioned as a professional staff member."
Moody said such action, in effect, means Owens was benefiting from an outside office account _ Brunsdale's salary being paid by UP&L _ in violation of House Rule 45.
Owens specifically denies every point concerning Brunsdale. "He was very helpful in making suggestions on the legislation, but so were two CUP lobbyists, who almost lived here, and a dozen other lobbyists, some from public power agencies," Owens said. "This is how we use lobbyists in Congress. But the lobbyists never used me. The three congressmen who refused to make the complaint know this. (By House rules, three members of Congress must refuse to bring the charges themselves before an outside party can.)
The issue was clouded Thursday morning during a press conference at GOP headquarters. UP&L lobbyist Doug Sontag and his company's attorney, former GOP chairman Robert Wright, gave reporters a letter from CUP General Manager Don Christiansen to UP&L saying he wanted Brunsdale, even though paid by UP&L, to represent environmental concerns for the CUP before Owens. Sontag claimed that, thus, Brunsdale was really working for the CUP, a subdivision of the federal government. He said lobbyists for federal agencies are exempt from House Rule 45. Thus, Owens did nothing wrong .
Moody didn't buy it, saying he's seen Brunsdale's check stubs and Brunsdale was a UP&L employee.