Republican state Sen. Stephen Rees likely will be called before a Senate ethics committee to answer questions about conflict of interest involving his business.
Rees is a director and chief fund-raiser of a firm that promotes teenage sexual-abstinence programs in public schools. And in that capacity he's solicited funds from businesses that lobby the Legislature.Tuesday, state Democratic Party Chairman Peter Bill-ings Jr. told a press conference that Rees should be investigated by an ethics committee. Billings called on Republicans in the Senate to initiate such proceedings - it takes three senators to call for an ethics investigation - but added that he already has talked to three Democratic senators - Senate Minority Leader Eldon Money, D-Spanish Fork; and Sens. Scott Howell and Karen Shepherd, both D-Salt Lake - who told him they would demand a Rees ethics investigation if the Republicans don't.
Thus, the Salt Lake County Republican, appointed to the Senate in 1987 and elected in 1988 and facing re-election next year, likely will be called to task.
"I'm shocked," said Rees, a member of the majority Republican leadership. "I think it is politically motivated. Maybe it has to do with me being the Senate's chairman of the reapportionment committee, I don't know. I know that powerful Democrats sit on the Planned Parenthood board and that Planned Parenthood wants a more liberal teen prevention program - including contraceptives - and doesn't like my abstinence program at all.
"If three (senators) sign (the investigation call), we'll have a hearing. But it has been known around here (among his Senate colleagues) for more than two years of my involvement with this program. I strongly believe in it."
Billings denies political motivation. "The only aspect with the reapportionment committee is that fellow senators fear Rees and what he could do to redistricting them next year, and no one from Planned Parenthood has talked to me. Three Democratic senators called me, we talked and decided this was what to do." The bipartisan reapportionment committee, whose membership is weighted with the majority Republicans, will recommend this fall redistricting of legislative and congressional districts required because of the 1990 census.
Weekend news reports make Bill-ings believe that Rees "may have profited personally" from his pushing legislative support of the teen sexual abstinence programs.
As reported Monday in the Deseret News, Rees is a director of the Institute for Research and Evaluation, a non-profit corporation that tests abstinence programs and recommends such programs to local school districts. In 1987, the institute received a $75,000 state Office of Education grant to evaluate such programs - funding that Rees pushed for in the Senate. Since then Rees has protected teen sexual-abstinence program funding through the budget-setting process, something he makes no apology for "since I believe in the success of these programs."
As the institute's chief fund-raiser, Rees receives a $65,000 annual salary. "He has received almost $250,000 in salary promoting abstinence programs of very questionable value," Billings said.
Over the past four years Rees has greatly increased the institute's budget through fund raising. Last year the budget was $250,000.
In his fund-raising effort, Rees has solicited from private companies that regularly lobby in the Legislature, although Rees says "there was no give and take - they expected no (political) favors from me and I've actually voted against their legislative interests a number of times."
Billings says that revelation further troubles him. Rees has raised at least $87,000 from such firms, news reports say.
Rees steadfastly says he's done nothing wrong, violated no ethics rules. The rules are, admittedly, vague. Senators, with Rees agreeing, tried to strengthen ethics rules last session, but House members failed to consider the joint rule change in the waning hours of the 1991 Legislature.
Billings says news reports indicated that even the loose ethics rules - he advocates significantly tightening those rules - were violated by Rees.
Quoting from the joint rules handbook, code of official conduct section, Billings says legislators "shall not engage in any employment or other activity (Billings' emphasis) which would destroy or impair their independence of judgment."
Also, legislators "shall not exercise any undue influence on any government entity," he said. Rees may have violated both those sections, Billings says.
Even though administrators in the school districts that have adopted a Rees-endorsed sexual abstinence program say Rees didn't pressure them, Billings believes the simple fact that a powerful senator asked them to adopt the programs "made it difficult to say no." Davis, Jordan, Millard and Murray school districts use the program.
Rees says his firm evaluates sexual abstinence programs developed by other, non-related firms. "We don't develop the programs. We don't market the programs. We just evaluate them and recommend them. When a school district adopts one of those programs, we don't make a cent on that."
Billings gives Senate Republican leaders a week to call for the ethics investigation. "If they don't, we will." Referring to House Democrats asking for an ethics investigation of former Rep. Dionne Halverson, D-Ogden, last session, Billings said, "We were basically told (by Republican leaders) that we should take care of this ourselves, and we did. The Republicans control the Senate (by a 19-10 majority) and should clean their own house."
Rees said he doubts Republican senators will call for an investigation. He said he's disinclined to ask for such an investigation himself. "I'd have to get two other senators to agree with me even to do that," he said.
How probe is conducted
Steps taken in a legislative ethics investigation:
- Three senators sign an ethics investigation request.
- The bipartisan ethics co-chairmen meet with legislative staff to determine if there's enough evidence to convene the whole ethics committee.
- If the chairmen so decide, a preliminary, secret committee meeting is held. Testimony is taken; the accused senator can have legal counsel present.
- If the committee decides some action should be taken against the accused senator, another phase is entered and sanctions - ranging from a simple public reprimand to loss of committee assignments to expulsion - is recommended to the whole Senate.
- The Senate as a whole discusses the matter, hears the ethic committee's recommendation and votes on sanctions. The Senate can vote no sanctions, in essence clearing the senator, or can impose sanctions by a two-thirds majority vote - 20 members voting aye out of the 29 senators.