The Utah House of Representatives was expected to vote Friday morning whether to expel Democrat Rep. Dionne Halverson, who the House Ethics Committee ruled Thursday night "engaged in an activity which is a violation of trust."
Expulsion from the body would require a two-thirds majority vote of the House.Halverson, 43, pleaded no contest last month to a class A misdemeanor of retail theft after stealing $196 in men's clothing from the Mervyn's at Ogden's Newgate Mall on Dec. 20.
The House was expected to vote on the issue at 11:30, and Democratic leaders said they believe the votes will be there to expel her.
The Democratic leadership met Friday morning behind closed doors with House Speaker Craig Moody to discuss Halverson's status. Minority Leader Rep. Frank Pignanelli, D-Salt Lake, said he and other Democrats were trying to persuade her to step down.
"The Democrats, we want a caucus on it," Pignanelli said.
Prior to the meeting with Moody, Democratic leadership met privately to discuss how to persuade Halverson to resign. Moody said earlier Friday he had not heard from Halverson.
The ethics committee voted to recommend that the House expel the Ogden Democrat after a four-hour, closed-door hearing. "The committee feels that this action is necessary in order to re-establish the credibility of the House of Representatives as a whole and to reestablish the trust the citizens of this state have entrusted in the Legislature," said committee chairman Rep. Joseph Moody, R-Delta, reading a prepared statement.
If Halverson resigns or is expelled, the Weber County Democratic Central Committe will submit three names to Bangerter, who will then select her successor.
Halverson was not available for comment but her attorney John Caine said upon hearing the committee's decision she was "very saddened and she felt the decision was unduly harsh given the circumstances and given the fact she's tried to be very open and up-front about it."
The eight-member panel, four Republicans and four Democrats, deliberated for nearly three hours after hearing evidence and testimony, Caine said. The committee would not reveal its vote but a majority decision was sufficient to support its finding.
The ethics committee also found that Halverson did not abuse her official position as a legislator to secure any privilege.
"She's prepared to have the matter submitted to the full House tomorrow and abide by the decision," Caine said Thursday night.
State Democratic officials asked Halverson to resign from the House after she was sentenced for the shoplifting offense. Halverson refused, saying she had a "wide base" of support from fellow legislators, constituents, friends and neighbors. At that time, she said she believed she could continue to be an effective legislator.
Caine said he was not sure if Halverson would have enough support in the House to reject the ethics committee recommendation.
"It's hard to know. It's been strange to me. I've been involved in the political process myself for some years. It's been strange how this evolved here. It was really the Democratic leadership that I think put pressure on her early to resign and that sort of thing and we didn't expect that totally, but I don't know.
"I'm sure there are a lot of people who feel badly for her. She's been an excellent legislator and she's very well liked. Whether or not that translates into voting against this recommendation is difficult to know. It's just hard to know how it will go."
Caine said he had expected that Halverson would be subject to some form of disciplinary action but he was surprised that the committee recommended expulsion.
"It was expressed in there that the integrity of the Legislature as a whole needs to be inviolate. And I guess my only comment to that is when you set up those kind of standards everybody better live by them. When you're in a glass house you don't throw rocks," Caine said.
Halverson, who won re-election last November, is the only legislator in recent history who, according to findings of an ethics committee, violated the Code of Official Conduct.
Ironically, a shoplifting bill sponsored by Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, passed the House Friday morning after getting Senate approval earlier. The bill is designed to make it easier for merchants to collect civil restitution from shoplifters.
The Halverson probe is the legislature's first since Sen. Paul Rogers, R-Orem, underwent an ethics investigation in March 1986 but was exonerated. The investigation was launched to ascertain why Rogers met with then Attorney General David L. Wilkinson regarding a probe into Utah Power & Light activities. He later resigned from the Senate.
In Roger's case, the investigation was sought by then State Democratic Chairman Randy Horiuchi.'
In 1981, a House ethics committee cleared four Utah legislators of any official wrongdoing in their relationship with a large company bidding for work on the multi-million dollar Intermountain Power Project. Republican Reps. Norm Bangerter (then Speaker of the House), Mac Haddow, Merrill Harward, Nolan Karras, and then-Senate President Miles Ferry were also cleared by Utah Attorney General David Wilkinson of any wrongdoing regarding their acceptance of favors from an attorney for Daniel International Inc.