After already spending nearly two decades in various forms of political office, when he became lieutenant governor of the state of Utah four years ago, Gary Herbert knew that some days at the office would be more trying than others.

But no way could he have imagined the trials and tribulations he would inherit when an election dispute arose in the race for, of all offices, state treasurer.

By now the facts are widely known. Two Republicans vying in last month's primary election for the party's nomination for treasurer, Richard Ellis and Mark Walker, managed to become household names just days before Election Day on June 24 after Ellis alleged that Walker, in his capacity as a state legislator, had earlier in the spring offered him a bribe to stay out of the race. Walker responded by saying he hadn't done anything illegal.

As overseer of Utah's elections, all eyes looked to Herbert. Was he going to call a foul or wasn't he? Would he launch an investigation immediately?

Herbert said he wouldn't do anything until after the election.

All sorts of people had a problem with that, including Ellis, Ellis' backers, Ellis' lawyers (who took their grievance to the Utah Supreme Court, only to be turned away) and various vocal members of the media, who heard the word "bribe" and reacted like it was the 2002 Olympic bid all over again.

How could Gary Herbert just sit on his hands like that? they wanted to know. Why wasn't the man doing his job?

As it turns out, he was.

I asked Herbert last week for a recap of the great treasurer's race brouhaha and his role in it. He was happy to respond. He said he wished members of the media who pilloried him last month had called him personally before dismissing him as the village idiot.

"I acted in the best interest of the election process and within the powers of this office," he said. "I couldn't wave a magic wand. The truth is, there is no magic wand and this office has limited powers. I wanted to remain absolutely 100 percent neutral and to make sure no one was using this office for their own political purposes."

Herbert said the biggest mitigating circumstance that made any acceptable resolution difficult, if not outright impossible, was that the allegation wasn't made until nearly three months after the bribe was said to have been proffered. The charge didn't come until late in the race, at a time when Ellis was behind Walker in the polls, and, most significantly, after the election process had already started.

"Absentee ballots and early voting had begun," noted Herbert. "And I had no way of knowing the truth of the allegations since this office has no investigatory power."

By law, the case would have to be turned over to the Attorney General's Office — but the A.G. wouldn't have sufficient time for a verdict before primary election day.

And any attendant prejudicial publicity for a candidate, in this case Walker, being formally investigated on bribe charges in the midst of an election, without a reasonable expectation of a resolution prior to the primary election, hardly seemed fair.

That explains why Herbert waited until 8:01 p.m. on June 24 — one minute after the polls closed — to ask the A.G.'s office to investigate.

"I did it after voting closed but before anyone could know the outcome of the election," explained Herbert.

If Walker won and the charges stuck, he couldn't hold office — and Ellis would presumably take his place in the November general election.

But Ellis, as it turned out, won, rendering his allegation moot, at least as far as the treasurer's race is concerned.

Justice, as it pertained to the lieutenant governor's office involvement, was served — although exactly what impact the media outrage over Herbert's perceived inaction had on Walker's campaign is incalcul-

able.

In the election's aftermath, the A.G.'s investigation continues, and Walker, citing too much strain on his family, has resigned from the Legislature but continues to maintain his innocence.

For his part, besides having increased empathy for NBA referees, customs inspectors, IRS auditors and those guys at the airport who ask you if your packed your own bags — basically anyone who is doing their job — Herbert remains as in the dark as any of the rest of us whether Ellis or Walker is telling the truth.

"I don't know the mind of man. I like to give them the benefit of the doubt that they're doing what they're doing for the right reasons," he said. "At the same time I like being given that same benefit of the doubt, that I'm doing what I'm doing for the right reasons. I don't want people to use my office as a pawn — not now or in the future. Period. Question my judgment but not my motives."


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.