The state senator rises, argues vehemently for a bill and then, just before he shouts "aye" in favor of the new law, declares a possible conflict of interest.
Trouble is, no one knows exactly what his conflict is. He declines to say. Is he being paid as a lobbyist for the special interest group? Will his private business be helped by the new legislation or spending?Both of those scenarios have played out in the Utah Legislature. So did this:
Several years ago two state senators were working as "government consultants," representing clients who had important issues before the Legislature. Legislative rules say a House or Senate member can't "engage in any employment or other activity which would destroy or impair their independence of judgment."
The rules also say "members of the Senate and House shall not engage in any activity which would be an abuse of official position or a violation of trust."
Even though the senators were working as lobbyists, being paid to influence legislation, their actions were never questioned publicly by fellow senators. No colleague even asked if they were violating ethics rules. No ethics violations were filed.
In the late 1970s, when the Democrats briefly controlled the Utah Senate, the fund of the Third House - the official slush fund used for entertainment and other Senate activities - came up several thousand dollars short. The shortage was discovered and the senator in charge of the fund agreed to leave office.
Since the fund is there for whatever use the senators desire, and since they desired not to make a fuss, the affair ended quietly. Several well-known lobbyists were asked to make up the missing money, and they did.
Ethics, conflicts of interest, improper conduct - such things are not often talked of in House and Senate chambers. No one can define them. No one can say when they've been violated.
A citizen, part-time legislator will always have conflicts of interest. Attorney-legislators pass laws they struggle with in their daily professional lives. Insurance agent-legislators vote on insurance code changes. Car dealer-legislators sponsor licensing and automobile taxation measures. Trucking-legislators pass transport deregulation. And state employee- and public teacher-legislators vote on their own pay raises.
Many conflicts of interest are clear. For example, House Minority Whip-elect Kelly Atkinson is the executive director of the Utah School Employees Association - the union of non-teacher, public education workers. Clearly, education funding and education issues pose a conflict for Atkinson.
Such open conflicts are understood and tolerated.
What is difficult for many citizens, and some legislators themselves, to accept is the unpleasant feeling that something is going on behind the scenes, unknown to them.
"I'm on the inside," says Atkinson. "I know all these (legislators), but I don't pretend to know all of their conflicts. We need complete conflict-of-interest disclosure, salaries, everything. Let the light shine."
Lawmakers like to talk about the sacrifices they make serving. Much of that is true. They certainly don't get paid well, just $65 a day plus expenses. The average yearly pay is about $4,500, legislative fiscal analysts say.
The low pay and long hours naturally lead some legislators to look at the perks of public service. And that can lead to conflicts of interest, monetary or otherwise.
Not all professions fare well in legislative service. But several do. While some attorney-legislators have lost income by serving, others have enhanced their specialized practices. Insurance agent-legislators have done well, sources say, as have some other businessmen who've managed to enhance trade through their legislative contacts.
One of the toughest conflicts to deal with involves attorney-lawmakers. Who are their clients and are they paying the legislators to influence lawmaking? Those questions make some powerful attorney-lawmakers bristle. They say discussing their clients breaks the confidential client-attorney relationship. It's not a small problem. The 1990 Legislature had five attorneys in the 29-member Senate, 11 in the 75-member House.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, who himself is a private attorney, and other legislators have suggested a conflict-of-interest law that would make attorney-legislators, and lawmakers who engage clients, name their clients who contribute $25,000 or more to their firms in a year. Needless to say, the attorney-lawmakers didn't like that idea. The bill failed.
In fact, almost all efforts over the past 10 years to detail conflicts of interest, require fuller campaign disclosure or lobbyist reporting have failed. Even the overbroad rules on ethics aren't followed.
Despite the joint rules of the House and Senate that say there'll be standing and interim committees on ethics, with an equal number of majority and minority members, there are no such committees. There has never even been a meeting of the House Ethics Committee, because no House members have ever complained about an ethics violation. A Senate Ethics Committee was impaneled several years ago, but the committee found the senator accused of improper conduct innocent of all charges and the committee disbanded.
Here are other ethical questions lawmakers have chosen not to deal with:
- Utah legislators and legislative candidates can still use campaign monies for any purpose, even lining their own pockets.
The 1990 election left a number of candidates - in and out of office - with healthy surpluses. Senate President Arnold Christensen, R-Sandy, who won re-election, has $17,000 left in his campaign fund. After his 1986 re-election, Christensen had $3,900 left over. But that $3,900 doesn't show up on his 1990 filing, which states he had no campaign fund balance as of April 15, the candidate filing deadline. Christensen is out of town and unavailable for comment.
Sen. Richard Carling, R-Salt Lake, who lost his re-election bid in November, has $6,500 left over. House candidates, some who won and some who lost, have from $50 to $4,000 left over, campaign finance reports show.
Incumbents often use their leftover cash to pay for one or two constituent mailings each year. But the losers who don't plan on running again have a financial windfall with no strings attached.
- As leadership races have become more competitive, especially financially, it's become a custom in the Utah House and Senate for party leaders to give part of their campaign money to underlings, with the hope that they'll vote to keep the leader in power.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. House Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, raised $15,250 - mostly from special-interest political action committees - this past year and gave $11,400 of it to fellow Democratic House candidates. But Dmitrich was beaten in his attempt to remain minority leader by Rep. Frank Pignanelli, D-Salt Lake.
House Majority Whip David Adams, R-Monticello, gave $8,550 to GOP House candidates this year. Yet he, too, was defeated in his attempt to step up to House majority leader.