SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jason Chaffetz announced his June 30 resignation date again Friday, this time in a letter to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan that's intended to clear up concerns raised by Utah lawmakers that Chaffetz might change his mind.
The Utah Republican also met with President Donald Trump at the White House on Friday for what Chaffetz's office called a courtesy visit. He has said he's leaving Congress in his fifth term to take a position in the private sector, believed to be with Fox News.
"I hereby resign from the office of U.S. representative, effective at 10 a.m. Eastern Time on June 30, 2017," Chaffetz's letter to the speaker states, amid friction between lawmakers and Gov. Gary Herbert over the special election process to fill his seat.
Utah House Republicans and Democrats held a rare joint meeting earlier this week to talk about their legal issues with the election set by the governor, including whether the seat could be considered vacant before Chaffetz leaves office.
Legislative counsel said in a formal opinion that Chaffetz's May 18 email to the governor to inform him "in advance of my intent to resign" June 30 was insufficient to establish a vacancy and the governor was premature in calling the election.
State Elections Director Mark Thomas said Friday the letter from Chaffetz should settle the vacancy issue.
"The resignation letter addresses the Legislature's concern regarding the possibility of Congressman Chaffetz not resigning," Thomas said.
It's his understanding from Chaffetz, the elections director said, "that this letter has been reviewed by the official U.S. House of Representatives parliamentarian, who stated this is a legal, irrevocable document."
But lawmakers still take issue with the election already underway. Three Republicans are competing in the Aug. 15 primary, and Democrats have chosen their candidate for the November general election.
Greg Hartley, chief of staff to House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he appreciates the parliamentarian's statement, but it "doesn't change the fact that the office isn't currently vacant."
Hartley said the U.S. House will consider the District 3 seat held by Chaffetz as occupied until his resignation takes effect, so there is no vacancy until then. He said that "leaves this special election in legal risk."
Hughes and Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, have made it clear the Legislature won't take legal action against the governor that would interfere with the current election process.
But Utah House Republicans are expected to see a plan soon for addressing the issue, likely during the 2018 Legislature, to ensure there's a law spelling out how any future congressional vacancies will be handled.
At least one Utah lawmaker said the solution to the turmoil over filling the seat was to talk Chaffetz out of resigning.
During a Utah House GOP caucus earlier this week, Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, urged his colleagues to take a position encouraging Chaffetz to rescind his intent to resign.
But caucus leaders stopped a vote from taking place.
Stratton said Friday he later spoke to Chaffetz about staying in office and although they had "a good visit and certainly he's concerned about any potential challenge there could be in filling the seat, but it's not going to work for him to continue."
The congressman's letter is helpful because it "removes the vulnerability" of starting the election process before the resignation, Stratton, an attorney, said, although to be safe, the process still should be written into law.
Chaffetz's initial May 18 email to the governor referred only to his "intent to resign." Stratton said with the letter, "he's trying to help the process, and be helpful, make sure there's not any question on the issue."
There's a legal difference between intent and an irrevocable decision, Stratton said. "You could say he had the intent when he was seeking re-election to finish the term if he was re-elected. Intents can change."