SALT LAKE CITY — If a complaint against a state legislator were filed tomorrow, the chairman of Utah's new independent legislative ethics commission is confident in its ability to handle the situation correctly.
The commission, which consists of three retired judges and two former lawmakers, convened for the first time Monday, but not to hear ethics complaints.
Commission Chairman Michael Wilkins, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, said the commission still needs a staff, website and e-mail addresses, but it will take the politics out of judging the conduct of state legislators.
"The goal is for legislators to have a forum for the neutral examination of complaints," he said.
Rules for the commission, created earlier this year, include secrecy about when complaints are filed and against whom they are filed, so the commission can verify if complaints have merit before they end up in the news media.
If the press reports that a legislator has an ethics complaint within 60 days of an election, said Eric Weeks, the Legislature's deputy general counsel, an exoneration might not save that person's chances of being elected.
"The damage may have been done simply by the fact that the complaint was released," Weeks said.
The 2010 Legislature created the commission as part of a package of reform bills that were sparked by a citizens' initiative petition drive on legislative ethics. The petition has failed to qualify for the November ballot, but voters will be able to decide whether to make the new ethics commission part of the state constitution.
By Monday evening, the commission received a temporary mailing address. Complaints may be sent to Lt. Gov. Greg Bell's office and will be kept confidential as long as they are addressed to the ethics commission. The address is P.O. Box 142325, Salt Lake City, UT 84114.
Complaints also may be delivered in person to Bell's office in Suite 220 at the Utah State Capitol.
The rules for submitting a complaint are as follows:
Complaints may be filed for a breach of the Legislative Code of Conduct, set by the Joint Rules of the 58th Legislature in 2010, or for a conviction or plea of guilty or no contest or a plea held in abeyance for a crime of moral turpitude.
Two registered voters may file a complaint against a legislator, but one of the people must have firsthand knowledge of the allegation.
Two senators or representatives may file a complaint and must include affidavits or evidence of each allegation.
Complaints may not be filed within 60 days of an election and may not be refiled if the commission has already reviewed the allegation unless there is new evidence.
If the above requirements are met, the commission is required to review the complaint in a closed-door mini-trial.
The commission must give notice of the meeting, but it won't disclose the complaint unless the commission forwards the complaint to the appropriate ethics committee in the House or the Senate. That's when the complaint, findings, votes and comments from the commission relating to allegations that are proved may be released.
Utahns for Ethical Government, the group seeking to create more ethics reforms for lawmakers, said in a statement Monday that it believes the commission's members are competent and qualified.
However, it said, the Legislature has limited its ability to function.
UEG predicts that because so much evidence is required to file a complaint, few complaints will meet the standards to allow an investigation; that the public won't know when the commission is investigating a complaint; and that it will be difficult to know how well the commission is carrying out its work.
The process could be even more flawed than it currently is, said David Irvine, a member of UEG's executive committee.
"Though not the fault of the commissioners, the Legislature is keeping a tight rein on the work of the commission," said Kim Burningham, UEG's chairman, in the statement.
Wilkins said he recognized the Legislature imposed various rules on the commission.
"I'm happy to give that a try and see how it goes," he said, adding that he expects legislators will hear from the commission if procedures aren't adequate.
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