The ethics wars in the Utah House may be over at least until after November's elections.
A conservative House member told the Deseret News Monday that no ethics violation will be filed against Rep. Steve Mascaro, R-West Jordan.
Meanwhile, a moderate House member said that no allegations of ethics violations will be filed against any member of House GOP leadership.
Both sides said complaints could be filed if more information in either incident Mascaro's contact with a female intern or hints that a GOP leader could have agreed to help find "bribe" money to keep one Republican out of the state treasurer's race is found.
"I don't see anything happening with Mascaro, unless something more from either side (in his case) comes up," said the conservative, who spoke on condition that his name not be used. "And I don't think we'll see any (complaints) from the other side, either," he added meaning any action against GOP leaders.
"I think that is accurate," said a moderate House member involved in behind-the-scenes discussions.
But the whole tenor of the fights public and private has left bad feelings on both sides.
Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, is one of the Republicans who signed an ethics complaint against former Rep. Mark Walker, R-Sandy. Walker resigned his post, making the allegation moot.
Allen says that the ethics process in the Legislature "doesn't work."
She wants significant reforms mainly by taking preliminary ethics complaints and investigations out of the sphere of lawmakers themselves. She suggests that an independent ethics commission be set up, much along the lines of how the Judicial Conduct Commission handles complaints against judges. Such bills have been introduced before, but never passed by lawmakers.
"It's too early to tell" if there will be legislative ethics reforms in the 2009 Legislature, she said. "But we should do it."
Walker, who ran for state treasurer this year, was accused by the other GOP candidate, deputy chief treasurer Richard Ellis, of offering Ellis a "bribe" Ellis could keep his deputy job in a Walker administration and get a huge pay raise, more than $50,000 a year, if Ellis didn't run.
Ellis quotes Walker as saying that he'd talked with "someone" who could make the raise happen strongly hinting that GOP House leaders who were supporting Walker could appropriate the extra money for the treasurer's office. Neither Ellis nor Walker named any GOP leader.
But an attorney for the five House members who requested an ethics investigation of Walker said that House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, should be investigated. Curtis denies he had any conversation with Walker about raising Ellis' pay. Walker lost the GOP treasurer primary in June to Ellis and resigned his seat thus ending the Legislature's ethics investigation. Two independent prosecutors are still looking at any criminal activity by Walker; their investigation should be done within a month.
Meanwhile, Mascaro says he did nothing wrong last February when he counseled and spoke privately with a female intern who told him she was having personal troubles and had "pills" to solve problems. After meeting with Mascaro and two staffers, Curtis wrote the young woman (who declined to comment to the Deseret News) a letter, in which Curtis apologizes on behalf of Mascaro.
The private meeting between Mascaro and the intern had a more sinister outcome, Curtis writes in his letter, listing alleged actions by Mascaro that were inappropriate. But Mascaro denies any wrongdoing, denies those events happened, and offered to take a polygraph test. Mascaro and others see the "leak" to the media about the intern contact as retribution for Mascaro signing the ethics investigation letter against Walker.
Allen said that if she or any other House member acted wrongly in formally asking for an ethics investigation of a member (Walker) who is accused by a respected source of offering a bribe in this case Richard Ellis then under what possible conditions would an ethics complaint be appropriate?
"Never; there would never be an instance" of questionable behavior by a legislator where the current ethics process would work, Allen said. "I don't think anyone will" ever ask again for an ethics investigation of a fellow member as the current rules require without the accused member agreeing to the investigation beforehand, Allen said.
The answer is to get ethics investigations out of lawmakers' hands, at least at first. The Judicial Conduct Commission works like this: Anyone can make a complaint against a judge (currently, at least three fellow legislators can start an ethics investigation of a lawmaker.) Privately, the complaint against a judge is investigated. If it's groundless, under judicial conduct rules, it is dismissed and not made public.
If the complaint has some grounds, the process moves forward. And in the end, the Utah Supreme Court, which oversees the judicial branch of government, can issue a public reprimand or even remove a judge from office.The high court has already ruled that only the Utah House and Senate can kick out a member midterm. So ultimately, the respective bodies must decide the fate of a misbehaving member.
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