Over the next month, legislative leaders expect the 104 lawmakers to voluntarily fill out a new, tougher conflict of interest disclosure form.
And all information disclosed will be available to the public.House and Senate leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, unanimously agreed in Tuesday afternoon's Legislative Management Committee to a proposed ethics rules change. The Legislature is not in session, and so the rule can't officially be changed.
"But we expect all members to voluntarily fill out the form and hope to have it back in 20 days," said House Speaker Craig Moody, R-Sandy.
Senate President Arnold Chris-tensen, R-Sandy, said the new interest in ethics is not the result of recent media reports of possible conflicts of interest by various legislators.
Most prominent are news accounts of Sen. Stephen Rees' business dealings and state funding of a sexual abstinence program. Those reports led state Democratic Party Chairman Peter Billings Jr. last week to call for a Senate ethics investigation of Rees. Rees denies any wrongdoing and at the end of the legislative leaders' press conference on ethics reform Tuesday afternoon, Rees passed out documents he says show that he never sponsored any legislation that led to money for his firm - as some news outlets have reported.
Said Christensen, "We in the Senate already passed this joint ethics rule change (at the end of the 1991 session, months before the allegations against Rees). The House failed to act on it, but House leaders believe, as the Senate unanimously voted, that this should be in place."
House Minority Leader Frank Pignanelli, D-Salt Lake, an attorney, said that for better or worse, more disclosure by the part-time legislators of their business dealings "is the way politics must be done now." "The public demands more of it (disclosure). Some of our clients may grumble, but we must all get used to it," Pignanelli said.
In speaking to the press, Moody wondered how far conflict of interest disclosure will go. "What will you (the press) want from us next? Our income tax returns?"
The Deseret News last week mailed to all 104 lawmakers a questionnaire aimed at disclosing more possible conflicts of interest - asking them to list their main employment, whether they do business with the state and whether any registered lobbyist does routine business with the legislator or his business.
"I believe this new (ethics) rule answers those questions (in the Deseret News questionnaire)," said Moody.
Pignanelli, who now works as legal counsel for a local union, said he interprets the proposed rule to mean that the dozen-or-so attorneys in the Legislature must list all clients who lobbying or have business with the state. "I see it means that much detail," Pignanelli said.
Senate Majority Whip Lane Beattie, R-Bountiful, said he's worried that by requiring more specific reporting of possible conflicts of interest, lawmakers are setting themselves up for attack from the press. "Heavens, sometimes we don't even know if we have a con-flict until we hear the bill explained on the floor. If we failed to list that conflict, (the rule) will give anyone, likely the media, the right to pull it out and say we didn't list it," he said.
But, Christensen countered, legislators will still be asked to verbally declare a conflict of interest and say what that conflict is at the time of voting on a bill, thus correcting any written omission. Senators are supposed to do that now, while House members are supposed to file a very general conflict of interest statement. But the ethics rules are so vague that members are sometimes confused about what they should report or declare.
House Majority Whip Byron Harward, R-Provo, a legal publisher, said few legislators know there is currently a criminal conflict of interest law. "It says if a legislator has a personal or private interest - it doesn't even limit it to money - in any bill or matter pending before the Legislature and doesn't publicly disclose that conflict, he's guilty of a Class B misdemeanor."
That information left several legislative leaders looking wonder-ingly at each other.