Utah Republican Party leaders will ask the U.S. House Ethics Committee to investigate Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, for alleged violations in connection with Owens' work on the Central Utah Project reauthorization bill, Republican officials said Thursday.
GOP state chairman Craig Moody said Republicans are waiting for final documentation from colleagues of Owens before proceeding. Under House rules, three congressmen must refuse, in writing, to bring an ethics complaint before a citizen can bring such a charge. "We have two letters and one is on the way," said Moody. "When we get that third letter, we'll file our complaint, probably next week."(Owens' actions) are a clear violation of the House ethics rules," Moody charged.
As has been reported before, a friend and former campaign aide of Owens, Kenley Brunsdale, counseled Owens and sat in on meetings in the preparation of the massive CUP funding bill, which Owens has spearheaded in the Utah delegation. Brunsdale is an attorney and also a part-time lobbyist for Utah Power & Light Co. He is also the chairman of the Utah Roundtable of Sportsmen and Conservationists. Considering those positions, questions were raised about Brunsdale's influence in the bill's writing.
"Nothing unethical was done. It was all above board and the Republicans are irresponsible in bringing such a charge," countered Owens. "There was no ethical violation of any kind, and I will be happy to respond to their specific charges. Bring them forward or retract your statements," Owens said in response to Moody.
"The question is not one of openness or whether this affair has been in the press. It has. It's a question of violation of ethics, and we believe there is a clear violation," Moody said.
"Unfortunately, it has become the tactic of Republicans under siege to take matters to the Ethics
Committee. It is unethical of them to make such irresponsible accusations. This is a total smoke screen," said Owens.
Owens, the only Democratic member of the Utah delegation, holds a comfortable lead in the polls over his GOP challenger, former Salt Lake County Republican Chairman Richard Snelgrove, in his re-election effort this year.
The charge is not inconsequential. Political observers can't remember the last time that a formal ethics violation was charged against a Utah congressman. "This is a significant complaint," said Moody. "The congressman's actions in this matter won't be swept under the rug. We expect a full hearing."
Owens said there has been a full hearing in the press, all accusations heard and dispelled. Brunsdale did attend a number of meetings in Owens' office, said Art Kingdom, Owens' press aide, and was often seen in the office. Before most of those meetings, Owens introduced Brunsdale and noted his affiliation with UP&L and the conservation group, Kingdom said. "Kenley is an expert lobbyist on both matters (private power and conservation) and such experts are often listened to and should be," Kingdom said.
As part of the bill, public-power entities would have to pay slightly higher rates for electrical power generated by CUP power plants, and some of that money would go to environmental mitigation efforts in years to come, Kingdom added. Thus, critics say, Brunsdale could have influenced the bill in favor of private power companies' competition with public power and in favor of environmental concerns of conservationists.
Hogwash, countered Owens.
"(Brunsdale) had no undue influence on the congressman or on the bill's writing," said Kingdom.
A staff member for the House Ethics Committee said once the formal complaint is made, the chairman and ranking minority member will decide when the charges will be heard by the committee. The charges can be dismissed by committee members at any stage of the hearing process for lack of evidence or if the members don't feel they have jurisdiction over the alleged wrongdoing. It is possible that the case won't be resolved before the Nov. 8 election, he added.