The House of Representatives on Friday afternoon censured Rep. Dionne Halverson - the Ogden Democrat who was fined for misdemeanor shoplifting offense last month - but stopped two votes short of expelling her.
The disciplinary action came after a lengthy and eerily quiet floor debate conducted in the House chambers. Halverson voted with the majority against her own expulsion."I am pleased with the outcome, I will say that, and I'm ready to go to work. This has taken a lot out of me," she said.
"The past will haunt me like a spirit. But I choose not to forget it."
In the face of legislative discipline, Halverson, 43, appeared stoic, speaking slowly but succinctly. She stopped short of shouldering responsibility for her crime but instead lashed out at the media for exploiting it.
"I received several letters from even prison inmates who encouraged me to stand tall, that all of us make mistakes," said Halverson, who thanked her family and other supporters.
"I am honored to still be seated here upon this House floor because I hold it very near and dear."
Halverson said she is enrolled in a counseling program, which will begin after the legislative session.
It took three votes before House members could reach a decision. At one point, legislators consulted legal dictionaries seeking definitions of censure, which is a public statement of disapproval. While the disciplinary action became part of the House record, Halverson lost none of her legislative privileges.
Previously, the House Ethics Committee recommended Halverson be expelled from the Legislature.
Hours before the vote, members of Halverson's party sought her resignation, as they have since December.
The two-term representative refused to step down, saying she could effectively serve.
Despite what appeared to be a lack of support from her fellow Democrats, Halverson thanked party leaders. "I have seen a very statesmanlike attitude come from my new leadership that I've been very proud of."
Minority Leader Frank Pignanelli, who made the motion to censure Halverson after the expulsion vote failed, said it is time for members of the House to put the matter behind them.
Minority leaders issued a terse statement: "The House of Representatives has indicated that censure is in order and is, in itself, a very serious form of action; one rarely taken in the history of the state of Utah."
The action is unprecedented in the past decade of the Utah Legislature. In 1986, Rep. Paul Rogers faced an ethics investigation but was exonerated. In 1981, four representatives were cleared of wrongdoing. Both incidents involved conflict-of-interest questions, not criminal convictions, such as Halverson's.
In December, Halverson pleaded no contest to a shoplifting charge, which, for sentencing purposes, is considered the same as a guilty plea. The court fined her $350 and placed her on probation for 18 months.
Halverson was arrested on Dec. 20 at Mervyn's in Ogden's Newgate Mall after stealing $196 in men's clothing. She was charged with one count of retail theft, a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail.
An Ogden prosecutor said the value of stolen goods was tallied according to sale prices. If regular prices were used, the value of the items stolen could have led to Halverson facing a third-degree felony.
Some representatives expressed concern that expulsion was too harsh a measure for a misdemeanor offense. Others wanted more time to consider disciplinary action.
Rep. Arlo James, D-Kearns, argued Halverson has paid her debt and shouldn't receive legislative discipline. "To put her through this trauma right now is double jeopardy in our system."
But Rep. Joanne Milner, D-Salt Lake, disagreed, saying legislators write the law and expect the public to follow it. "There are certain standards we expect. I don't think we can, in any kind of good conscience, excuse it (unlawful conduct) among ourselves. "
And Rep. Walt Bain, R-Farmington, said Halverson would not be able to serve her constituents on par with the rest of the Legislature because of the black mark against her name.
"As hard an issue as this is, whatever we do in the form of a censure, or whatever, we are still placing the people of that district at a level below what the rest of us would be. No matter what we do, we still represent the people of our district, and I think the playing field ought to be equal for all," Bain said.
Halverson said she intends to carry on. "I intend to go quietly about my work down here and represent my people and do the best job I can.
"Even though I don't like that which I did - I detest that - I like me. And I have to stand tall with some dignity and self-esteem as a result of what I did. And I intend to do that."