A political blood-letting could be headed for the Utah Legislature as a formal ethics investigation brings to the surface long-held grudges.
As part of the initial ethics investigation, concerning alleged promises made by state Rep. Mark Walker in the state treasurer's race, those bringing the complaint want a "special prosecutor" appointed, something that has not been done in recent legislative history.
Formal ethics investigations are rare in the Legislature. It takes at least three members of the House to ask for a House investigation, three senators to ask for a Senate ethics investigation. As it currently stands, only the House is forming an ethics hearing now.
The politics may get bitter, as moderate Republican legislators and Democrats face off against conservative GOP lawmakers who have held the balance of power in the Legislature for years.
"I think" those bringing the new ethics investigation "are just using me as a whipping boy to get to (GOP) leaders," said Walker, R-Sandy, who lost the GOP treasurer's primary Tuesday.
The new investigation "is just a vindictive political cheap shot ... to harm the elections of others" in the House this year, Walker added.
Chief deputy treasurer Richard Ellis, who won Tuesday's GOP treasurer primary, has accused Walker, whom he defeated, of trying to bribe him to stay out of the Republican nomination race for treasurer.
Ellis claims that in March Walker came to him, promising not only to keep Ellis as chief deputy treasurer (and keep all of the treasurer's staff, as well) should Walker win but in addition offered to raise the chief deputy's pay by $56,000 a year.
Walker denies any wrongdoing, saying he never offered a pay raise and only offered to keep all treasurer employees on staff so as to not unduly worry "good employees." Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's office is now referring the allegations to two county attorneys, one a Republican and one a Democrat, for possible criminal prosecution.
The House's ethics investigation is a separate investigation from that one. A number of House and Senate GOP leaders backed Walker, and several said Thursday it is no coincidence that an ethics investigation is filed the day after Ellis beat Walker in the primary.
Ellis waited until after the May state GOP convention where Walker did well and forced Ellis into a primary to report the incident and make formal charges, following newspaper inquiries about the alleged offer.
Three House Democrats, Reps. Roz McGee, Neil Hansen and Phil Riesen, and two House Republicans, Reps. Sheryl Allen and Steve Mascaro, formally asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate Walker.
But the real political fur will fly over the five's insistence that the committee appoint a "special prosecutor" and look at whether any House Republican(s) "colluded" with Walker to raise Ellis' pay.
Part of Ellis' original complaint to Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert who oversees the state Election Office is that Walker conveyed to Ellis that the appropriate people in the Legislature with power over the budget had told him "there would be no problem" in getting the hefty pay raise for the chief deputy through the House and Senate as part of an enhanced treasurer's office budget.
Salaries of top state executives are set by the Legislature. But Walker points out that the treasurer sets his own chief deputy's pay. "I didn't talk to anyone" in the House "about pay or budget if I was the treasurer I could do that on my own, don't need any legislators." But he never made that promise to Ellis, Walker reiterated Thursday. "This is all silly, vindictive bile," said Walker.
Mascaro, one of the ethics complaint signees on Walker, has already told the Deseret News that he will run a package of so-called government reform bills "to bring transparency to our process" in the 2009 Legislature. Mascaro says he's taking that action after GOP House leaders "went back to the old days" of hardball politics in the 2008 Legislature holding up bills that Mascaro and some other lawmakers wanted to vote on.
Riesen, another of the ethics complaints' signees, says his colleagues want a special prosecutor specifically because they fear "potential pressure" from GOP House leadership could be brought against legislative staff attorneys who normally oversee ethics investigations. "We want to get an independent person with the power to subpoena" individuals, put them under oath, and ask questions, he said.
House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, said the current ethics investigation rules have numerous checks and balances to ensure objectivity and openness. He sees no provision in law for a "special prosecutor." Curtis added that he had no conversations with Walker about any extra money for the treasurer's office or pay raise.
The ethics committees have the same number of Democrats as Republicans one of the few committees so equally balanced in the Legislature.Rep. Lou Shurtliff, D-Ogden, co-chair of the Ethics Committee, said no decisions have yet been made about when the hearing process will start, but it will be soon. "I certainly hope it can be finished" by the November elections, she said.