The Utah Legislature was abuzz Wednesday with the news that seven Arizona legislators were indicted this week for taking bribes.
And it didn't go unnoticed that the Utah Legislature's ethics and financial disclosure laws are so loose that it's possible the same acts could be committed here without breaking any laws.Utah House members begin their formal discussion of several campaign and legislative reform laws Thursday. GOP House leaders expect the bills to pass the House, but their future in the Senate is unclear.
The Arizona Legislature is in session, and several tough legislative reform measures are before it. "I expect they have a better chance today of passage," said Donald Jansen, director of Legislative Counsel in Arizona. "It's unfortunate it takes a scandal like this to get reform."
"I'm shocked what happened" in Arizona, said Rep. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price.
Dmitrich works as a regional government affairs officer for a Carbon County coal company. He travels the West lobbying government officials on coal matters and knows "all of these people who were indicted (in Arizona). I can't believe it."
One of the Arizonans indicted, Rep. James Hartdegen, R-Casa Grande, works for Dmitrich's company "when the Arizona House isn't in session," Dmitrich said.
"They have the toughest ethics and campaign laws you can imagine, and this happened down there," Dmitrich said.
What happened is that seven Arizona legislators and seven lobbyists were indicted in a sting operation conducted by the Maricopa County attorney and Phoenix police. Law enforcement officials allege an undercover agent, pretending to be a lobbyist seeking to legalize gambling in Arizona, paid the legislators large sums of cash - from $5,000 to $55,000 apiece - to support the legalization.
Under that strict interpretation of the law - cash in return for votes in the Legislature - Utah lawmakers who accepted payments in the same manner could also be indicted for bribery, said M. Gay Taylor, Utah's legislative legal counsel.
"But our bribery of public officials law can be interpreted very loosely or broadly," she added. Key to the law is that a public official specifically agrees to take the money in return for "influencing a decision, opinion, recommendation, vote, or nomination."
What is more clear is that Utah has none of the strict campaign and lobbying reporting laws that Arizona has. And if there was never a clear exchange of "cash for votes," a Utah legislator could take money from a special interest group or lobbyist, never report it and break no law.
In fact, some have done just that.
Two Utah senators, no longer in the body, worked for a period of time as "government consultants" - taking fees to consult on important legislation before the Utah Legislature.
In addition, attorneys in the Utah Legislature, past and present, have at times supported legislation desired by clients, sources say. Under Utah law such actions are legal.
But under Arizona law, the Utah senators and their lobby clients would have had to report the money, says Jansen. And all Arizona legislators, including attorneys, must report the nature of a client's business if that business makes up 10 percent or more of the lawmaker's income.
Under Utah law, a legislator could take $55,000 in cash from a lobbyist and stuff it in a gym bag - as it is alleged one indicted Arizona legislator did - and all would be perfectly legal as long as the Utah lawmaker didn't agree to vote for a specific piece of legislation in return for the cash.
The lobbyist could hire the Utah lawmaker as a "government consultant" and pay him $55,000 in fees. If the Utah lawmaker were an attorney, he could be hired as a private attorney and paid $55,000 in legal fees. Neither of those transactions would be reported.
Or the $55,000 could be given the Utah lawmaker as a campaign contribution, and in a non-election year it would never be reported on any candidate financial disclosure form.
Utah legislators only report campaign contributions from April 15 to the November election day in the years they run for office. For 18 months, House members have no campaign reporting. For 31/2 years, senators have no reporting. Utah House Majority Whip Byron Harward, R-Provo, has a bill that would require year-round campaign reporting by legislators.
Jansen said that campaign contributions are limited in Arizona, just $220 per person or political action committee. "They (the Arizona legislators) could have taken the (gambling lobbyist's) cash but would have only been able to take $220 and would have had to report it." In fact, legislators not indicted in the sting operation did just that.
Utah Rep. Mont Evans, R-Riverton, introduced a tough legislative conflict-of-interest bill this session that would have required such reporting, but he recently gutted the bill saying it had little or no chance of passage.