The day after Thanksgiving, we should all be thankful for the many fine things in our lives.

And in the past, I've written about some of those thankful public/political items that, with all of our problems, still make the United States one of the most wealthy, powerful, democratic and safe countries in the world.

Even with all of our complaining these days, at least you don't see our leader imposing a state of emergency, firing the Supreme Court and setting aside the Constitution.

So be grateful and thankful that our public institutions work — maybe not as well as we'd like — but they still work.

And even in times of great stress, like the 2000 presidential election, we follow the rulings of our highest courts, we don't take to the streets trying to stop one candidate from taking power during a change of administrations.

With all those "thankfuls" aside, let me turn to another topic: How Utah is in many cases so far behind other states in governmental watchdogs.

Recently I've been reading and viewing how the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are doing.

And I often find it amazing how other state and local governments work in the area of ethics and campaigning.

Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee have been quizzed recently about some "ethical" problems they had in their home states.

I just have to smile (or wince).

The kind of things they are being criticized for wouldn't even be an issue in Utah. Or if they were, there would be just a few newspaper stories about them, and then, because there is no ethical code here worth anything, all would be quiet and no action would be taken.

Huckabee is the former Baptist minister, former governor of Arkansas (yes, he's even from Hope, like that other guy).

When he was governor, his wife helped organize a prewedding party for a female friend. Various people gave money to the invitation-only event. Huckabee was criticized because of who gave the money — whether it was all reported correctly.

Huckabee told a Sunday morning news program that he always tried to be on the safe side during his tenure and would report publicly even small gifts, like flowers sent to his gubernatorial office.

Utah state and local politicians don't have to worry about that kind of stuff at all.

If a lobbyist gives a Utah legislator an "intangible" gift of more than $50 in one day, the lobbyist (not the legislator) is supposed to list the gift along with the legislator's name.

But smart lobbyists have found all kinds of ways around that law. Even if a gift is improperly made, the legislator has no liability.

As Huckabee explained this week, Arkansas (along with a number of other states) has an independent ethics commission, to which anyone can make a claim. The former governor said he had to answer any number of complaints to the commission, including his wife's party.

Utah has no ethics commission.

There is no formal oversight to what the governor or his top aides do, short of a criminal charge.

The Utah House and Senate each have member-staffed ethics committees. But citizens can't make a complaint. A formal ethics investigation is made only if THREE House members or senators make a complaint against a fellow colleague. That, of course, rarely happens — even if there is a severe ethical lapse, routinely there aren't three legislators willing to make a formal complaint.

The other branch of government — the judiciary — is controlled by the Utah Supreme Court. There's a Judicial Conduct Commission, but it holds most of its meetings in secret and the public doesn't even know if a complaint is made against a judge unless formal disciplinary action is taken by the high court, which also rarely happens. We don't have head-to-head elections of judges here — the governor nominates, the Utah Senate confirms. And even the public information provided on judges in their retention elections is difficult to understand and, thus, often worthless.

So, while Utah citizens have many reasons to be thankful this holiday season, our politicians, top government officials, legislators and judges should also be thankful — thankful that citizens know so little about their shortcomings, especially on the ethical side of the ledger.


Deseret Morning News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]