The Deseret News' series on legislative ethics turned an overdue spotlight on some dark corners at the Capitol.
Although Bob Bernick noted the existence of the Committee for a Republican Majority, a registered political action committee which this year raised and spent $59,000, the spotlight did not linger there.He reported that this legislator-sponsored PAC had "laundered" $14,000 from the Utah Public Employees' Association, a practice designed to conceal the true origin of the money (and a violation of federal election law in a federal election), but apparently Bernick saw nothing too worrisome about either the laundering or the fund-raising techniques of the Committee for a Republican Majority.
This PAC (CRM) is the sole creation of incumbent legislators, and it is controlled by a few Republican legislators who coincidentally also run for legislative leadership positions such as speaker and majority leader, very significant power positions that control the legislative agenda and passage of bills.
Legislators contact organizations, primarily businesses, for contributions to CRM. These are the same businesses that regularly appear before the Legislature seeking the passage or defeat of bills affecting their operations, interests and profits.
For a company that stands to earn or lose millions of dollars annually if a certain bill passes, contributing several thousand dollars to CRM, at the friendly invitation of a legislative leader, is a prudent business decision. The Mafia would characterize this invitation as "an offer you can't refuse."
This is not a new practice. It first surfaced publicly 10 years ago when the media reported that then-Rep. Mac Haddow and others, using House speaker stationery, solicited business contributions to a private organization they had created for the ostensible purpose of improving business-legislative dialogue on issues of economic development. The solicitation effort raised about $35,000.
The Legislative Management Committee kiboshed the scheme and requested that the money be returned to the donors. It was discovered, however, that most of the funds had been paid for "services" rendered by an advertising company of which Haddow was part-owner.
Another dubious ethical quagmire not detailed in the series is the lack of meaningful legislator-employment disclosure. Some lobby groups and some lobbyists consider it smart practice to hire legislators as attorneys, political consultants, agents, managers or advisers of various sorts.
Present disclosure laws cover "campaign contributions" and that's all. If a legislator's employment conflicts of interest are known and accepted by the voters at election time, and by the Legislature as it votes on bills, the public interest is served about as well as can be expected in a part-time Legislature. To guarantee the public a fair vote, lobbyist-legislator employment relationships should be reported.
It is clear that legislators create massive conflicts of interest and temptations to self-deal when they accept positions and are paid compensation from lobby groups and lobbyists who regularly appear before the Legislature with their own special-interest legislation.
Lobbyists have a legitimate role in the legislative process: to present the merits of the position they and their employers wish to see adopted. They ought not to have to pay cash into leadership PACs in order to get a fair hearing for their position. The CRM financing mechanism creates the perception that legislative leadership elections are for sale.
Contrary to Bernick's assertion that legislators cannot define conflicts of interest, the hard truth of the matter is that certain legislators and their lobbyist allies profit handsomely from the conflict of interest transactions they knowingly and quite deliberately create, and both are loathe to give up these relationships of power and profit.
If legislators thought the public would tolerate knowing what is really going on at the Capitol, real and meaningful ethics reform would not be "dead on arrival" at the rules committees of the House and Senate.
The "Influence for Sale" sign that now hangs over the Capitol doors demeans the integrity of the political process and is an outrageous affront to the citizens of this state who expect legislators to act and vote in the public interest.
If the Legislature cannot bring itself to enact strong, meaningful ethics reform, this is one former legislator who will invite Utahns of all parties and persuasions to join in an initiative drive to get the job done right.