State Democratic senators' attempt to "investigate" Sen. Stephen Rees without really investigating him is bogged down in procedural squabbles and may well fail.
A week ago it seemed certain that Rees, R-West Valley, was to be called before a Senate ethics committee. Now it's not so clear.Senate Minority Leader Eldon Money, D-Spanish Fork, says the Senate's nine Democrats want the ethics committee to meet, but instead of specifically investigating Rees' action, Money wants the committee to clarify several questions concerning his actions.
But the ethics committee is supposed to sit in judgment of a specific senator accused of specific ethics violations, not answer some general request to clarify ethics rules, says Richard Strong, director of Legislative Research and General Counsel, staff of the Legislature.
"We're looking into whether the committee rules even allow it to do what Sen. Money asks. Certainly, this sets a new precedent (in ethics investigations)," said Strong. Should the committee agree to meet and says, in general, that what Rees did doesn't violate any ethics rules, it follows that Rees will never officially be called before the committee.
In a letter to Senate President Arnold Christensen, R-Sandy, Money asks the ethics committee to answer three questions:
- Is it proper for a member of the Senate to solicit donations for an organization that he/she has a financial interest in?
- Is it proper, in the course of soliciting contributions, for a member of the Senate to initiate discussion about legislation pending in the Senate?
- Is it proper for the party (person) from whom the contribution is being solicited to discuss pending legislation with the member of the Senate who is asking for contributions?
While Rees isn't specifically mentioned in those questions, they clearly apply to him. Rees is a director and chief fund-raiser for the Institute of Research and Evaluation, a non-profit corporation that tests teenage sexual abstinence programs for schools, recommends those programs specifically, and in general encourages teens from refraining from sex as a way to avoid teen pregnancies.
In his business capacity, Rees has solicited at least $85,000 from companies who have registered lobbyists in the Legislature. Overall, Rees is mainly responsible for raising the institute's $240,000, 1990 budget. Rees gets a flat, $65,000 annual salary from the institute. If he wasn't a successful fund-raiser, his salary would suffer. Thus, by donating money to the institute, businesses with interests in the Legislature are paying part of Rees' salary.
In addition, Rees has been a steadfast supporter, both in the appropriation process and elsewhere, of state-funded sexual-abstinence programs in the schools. He makes no apologies for his actions, saying he believes sexual-abstinence programs are the only successful way to stop teen pregnancies. He says his firm only tests and recommends the programs, that he gets nothing if a school selects one of his recommended programs for its curriculum. He maintains he has done nothing wrong and violated no ethics rules.
In calling for a formal ethics violation of Rees, State Democratic Party Chairman Peter Billings Jr. said last week that "more than three" Democratic senators had agreed to sign the required letter calling for the formal investigation. But since that time Democratic senators have had second thoughts. They still could call for an investigation of Rees, but first want their questions answered.
If ethics committee rules don't allow their general questions to be answered, either three senators must request a formal investigation specifically of Rees or the matter will be dropped.