State Sen. Stephen Rees, R-West Valley, says it was not his political influence that has gotten a teen sexual abstinence program into local school districts.
Rather, it was the whole-hearted support of parents, teachers, administrators and legislators who like the program and believe it works.Rees is a director and chief fund-raiser for the Institute of Research and Evaluation, a non-profit corporation that tests and evaluates various teen anti-pregnancy programs. Programs recommended by Rees are used in a number of Utah school districts. His fund raising and advocacy for the teen program and his legislative "clout" leads some to question his actions.
"We do not create the (sex education) programs," said Rees. "We don't market the programs. We just evaluate the programs. When a school district chooses a program we evaluate, we make no money at all - not a cent - from that program's use," Rees said Monday in response to weekend news accounts of possible conflicts of interest by Rees.
The institute is, of course, paid to evaluate the program in the first place, and his fund raising supports the institute's main goal: prevention of teen pregnancy through sexual abstinence.
"I'm very aware of conflict of interest. My institute has had only one contract with the state, that's 3 years old, and in debating and appropriating money (for teen sexual abstinence programs) I declared a conflict of interest in committee and on the floor," he said.
Indeed, Rees' business interest in teen sexual abstinence programs has been documented before in the media.
Rees' institute combined with three school districts three years ago and received a State Office of Education grant for $75,000 to evaluate three teen antipregnancy programs. Since then, Rees said, that contract has had several "small" additions to further track teens to see if the sexual abstinence programs tested by Rees' firm still guide the teens' sex lives.
A new wrinkle, however, is the senator's solicitation on behalf of his firm from companies who have registered lobbyists with the state.
"I have raised money, and been successful at it, from businesses who have or may have an interest in legislation," said Rees.
Stories in The Salt Lake Tribune say Rees raised $87,000 from such businesses over the past four years.
"I haven't reviewed that figure, checked it out. I can tell you this: Since this issue has arisen, I've contacted some of those businesses to reiterate what I've told them all along - the merits of the institute (in soliciting money from the businesses for teen pregnancy prevention) and the merits of those firms' issues before the Legislature rise and fall separately and on their own. That is, there is no give and take. They expect no favors from me, although they do expect - as all constituents do - to have access to me to make their best case."
Rees said he doesn't approach big-company lobbyists - who are well-known at the Legislature - directly for money for the institute. Instead, he goes to the companies' foundations or top executives and solicits money. Most of the institute's fund raising has come through federal grants, Rees said, with private donations coming second and the state contract a distant third.
The institute started in 1986 with only a $13,400 budget. Rees joined the firm in 1987, helping raise $55,797 that year. Last year the institutes budget was $235,134, most of the money being raised by Rees. Rees said he is paid a flat salary from the institute, where he is listed as one of three directors, of $65,000 a year.
Rees is a member of the Senate Republican majority leadership, and as such has considerable influence in policy and budgeting. He is a member of the Executive Appropriations Committee, which adopts the final state budget. He is the chairman of the Senate Health Committee - where a number of environmental issues are heard - and is a ranking member of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.