SALT LAKE CITY — The resignation Saturday of former House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, a Republican from Layton, over a nude hot-tubbing incident with a teenage girl 25 years ago is fueling the already heated debate over legislative ethics — especially since it follows the resignation of another high-profile GOP legislative leader from Davis County, former Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack of Syracuse. Shortly before the start of the 2010 legislative session, Killpack stepped down after being arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.
"There's no question, it's a black eye," Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said Saturday. "These are tough times. We, as legislators, live in a fishbowl down there. It's hard to hide anything."
A new citizens organization, Utahns for Ethical Government, is attempting to make it even harder for questionable behavior by lawmakers to stay hidden — through an initiative petition calling for a long list of ethical reforms, including a code of conduct spelling out that the appearance of impropriety must be avoided.
The organization has until mid-April to collect enough signatures from voters statewide to qualify for the general election ballot in November.
Lawmakers, though, oppose the UEG's efforts. During the session, they passed their own version of improved legislative ethics, including a proposed amendment to the constitution creating a new ethics commission that will be on the November ballot.
The sponsor of some of the ethics legislation, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, has said lawmakers will use their own campaign money to oppose the citizens initiative. Now, though, he and other lawmakers are expecting a tougher fight because of the resignations.
"Our critics use anything they can," Valentine said. "Both the Killpack and the Garn situations will have an impact."
Gov. Gary Herbert's spokeswoman, Angie Welling, said Garn's situation is "unfortunate." But, she said, it "should not detract from the success of the legislative session, particularly the good work everyone — Democrats and Republicans alike — was able to do with regard to passing a responsible budget in tough economic times that positions the state for future success."
Jenkins said lawmakers also worked hard last session to improve their image with the public in the wake of Killpack's DUI arrest at the end of an evening spent with lobbyists at a bar, Liquid Joe's.
"If there's any damage done, it's to the public perception," Jenkins said of the resignations. "I think we'd done a pretty good job of shoring that up. … We got down to business, and people weren't thinking about it."
But then, in the final minutes of the legislative session, Garn announced from the House floor that 25 years ago he had "foolishly went hot-tubbing with a young woman nearly half my age" and later paid her $150,000 when she attempted to make the incident public in 2002 during his failed bid for Congress.
State Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen, who said he was unaware of the incident until that announcement, was surprised Garn decided to return to the Legislature in 2004 given his situation.
"Stuff like this does not stay hidden," Hansen said. "My advice to candidates is whatever you've done in the past, you have to … accept the fact you may have to deal with it in a public way."
Hansen, too, said Garn's resignation would spark new interest in the ethics initiative, which is opposed by the GOP.
"Sure they're going to try to use it," he said. "But at the same time, you can look at it and say the system operated the way it was supposed to."
Leaders of the UEG initiative effort were clearly uncomfortable talking Saturday about whether the downfalls of Killpack and now Garn would help the UEG leaders' cause.
"It's their personal tragedies," said Dixie Huefner, UEG communications chair. "I don't want to look like we're dumping on people when they're down."
Huefner said lawmakers can be tempted and make mistakes.
"We're not interested in judging those mistakes," she said. "We're interested in having the public understand the highest ethical standards in our public officials that we can reach for. We don't have those yet. That's why we care so much about trying to get our initiative on the ballot."
Those standards go beyond the situations in which Killpack and Garn found themselves, she said.
"Sometimes Utahns only get really worked up when it's an issue of sexual morality or drunkenness," Huefner said. "People should be just as upset about financial conflicts of interest and the influence of big money on political decisionmaking … than about someone's personal mistake."