Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Deseret News and Tribune articles on legislative gifts and misuse of campaign funds,5143,695246085,00.html,5143,695243022,00.html,5143,695243482,00.html,5143,695244998,00.html,5143,695250519,00.html

Little desire found among Utah lawmakers to strengthen conflict-of-interest law
By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated: 01/26/2008 10:36:29 PM MST

Posted: 10:21 PM- When Utah's 104 lawmakers descended on Capitol Hill last week, they brought with them at least that many potential conflicts of interest.
That's not unusual. Most states have part-time legislatures, with members taking time out from their day jobs as real-estate developers, lawyers, school teachers, bankers, and energy prospectors to don their public-servant hats.
But one thing is different - Utah has one of the nation's weakest conflict of interest laws. And it's something that few legislators, if any, have a desire to change.
"We all have conflicts, don't we?" says Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville. "As long as you're dealing with a citizen Legislature, people have to make a living, and it's not easy to regulate."
Peggy Kearns, a former Colorado lawmaker and director of the National Conference of State Legislatures' Center for Ethics in Government, says citizens expect their elected officials to bring their real-world experience to government.
"The challenge for lawmakers is to separate the public interest from their personal interest," she said. "It's not a black and white issue. There is not a clear line and that's why no state defines conflict of interest in a very exact and clear way."
But there are several recent examples where Utah legislators have, at the very least, wandered deep into
those gray areas, prompting some to say more needs to be done to ratchet down Utah's conflicts laws.
Jordan Tanner, a former Republican lawmaker who crusaded for years for ethics reform, says conflicts of interest is "an issue that has been festering and boiling on Utah's Capitol Hill for many years."
"I'm not only frustrated, I'm disappointed, and I think the apathy of the citizens . . . is letting things happen that shouldn't happen," he said.
Utah has one of the weakest conflict of interest laws in the country. Thirty-five states require members in one or both of their bodies to abstain from voting if they have a conflict of interest, according to NCSL. Others leave the option to the member.
In Utah, the members are required to vote if they are on the floor, regardless of any conflict. They are, however, required to declare a conflict, either orally or in writing.
Enforcement is lax at best.
In October, Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, updated his conflict of interest statement to list his company that is seeking to get approval to build up to four nuclear power plants in Utah.
The disclosure came months after a committee he served on began discussion of nuclear power development proposals.
Five days after he filed the conflict notice, Tilton moved from his seat on a legislative committee considering a bill on nuclear power development to testify before the committee on his company's plans.
To get the water for the project, Tilton signed a deal with a Kane County water district led by fellow Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab.
As a member of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s energy advisory panel, Tilton had cajoled fellow members to support nuclear power, but told The Tribune later that he had no interest in nuclear development.
"I considered that one of the most blatant examples of conflict of interest that we've had at Utah's Capitol Hill in any Legislature's history," said Tanner.
Tilton maintains there was no conflict, because he never took any official action that would benefit him. He opposed the bill the committee was considering and points out it would only have helped utility companies, not his private project.
Not long after the Tilton uproar, Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble began working on potential changes to Utah's conflict of interest law, looking at potentially letting legislators abstain from voting if they have a conflict.
But after months of work, Bramble's plan has run aground because he has been unable to define what a conflict of interest is.
He uses teachers as an example: Should teachers vote on education issues, like pay raises? And if they can vote, why shouldn't the roughly half-dozen legislators with interests in charter schools do the same?
"What we're trying to deal with on conflicts of interest is creating a quantifiable bright line for recusal," Bramble said. "The bills aren't abandoned, but they aren't moving forward at this time."
Bramble has had his own brushes with conflicts.
Last summer, he was hired by Allied Waste to run cost projections on a waste transfer station near Orem, and approached the Orem mayor about selling the city's station.
Bramble said he was clear with the mayor that he wasn't acting as a senator and he no longer works for Allied, so there is no longer any conflict.
Bramble also was under scrutiny for arranging to have the a technical college build a parade float for the Utah County Republican Party. His wife is an official in the party and the party paid his son to drive the float.
Bramble said he made a passing suggestion that the school build the float and the college was paid for the work. Talk of a legislative ethics probe never resulted in any action. But the president of the state's technology colleges lost his job, in part because of the float incident, and also because he took an unjustified compensation package.
If nothing else, the incidents show the problems that arise for a legislator, particularly one in a leadership position, who represents a number of clients.
Similar questions have been raised about legal work that House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, has done, representing clients like Anderson Development in planning meetings.
"More people know where I work than any other legislator because it's been covered more times," he said. "You deal with it by being completely up-front with your colleagues and completely up-front with the issues before you. . . . I don't do a quid pro quo. I never have."
Two Utah lawmakers have peculiar conflicts - both Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, were registered lobbyists in 2007.
Stephenson is registered to lobby on behalf of the Utah Taxpayers Association, a business-backed group that advocates for lower taxes, but he says he only lobbies the governor's office, Utah Tax Commission and executive agencies, not the Legislature.
Until the middle of last year, Seelig was registered to lobby for 1-800 Contacts, although she is now listed as inactive.
Kearns says if Utah lawmakers are holding out for a clear definition of conflicts, they could have a long wait.
"I think conflicts of interest is the biggest ethical issue in any legislative body," she said. "I think elected officials in all levels of government constantly struggle with this. But the bottom line is the elected official must represent the public interest not his own interest."


Anonymous said...

I too am appalled by the lack of ethics reform in our legislature. One example of the need for reform is the abuse by educators.

Representative Allen is a senior Davis School District official who is on paid administrative leave to serve in the legislature. I’m sure if she worked for a corporation you would cry foul and call her a paid lobbyist. However, since she is drinking the union kool aid, I doubt that you see any problem with that.

You’re probably not even bothered by the fact that when HB349 hit the floor, a bill targeted at the Davis School District (her employer) she tried to introduce an unfriendly amendment and then reported false and misleading information about her employer.

Clearly, this was an ethical violation, just not a legislative ethical violation.

So a question for our Utah Teacher; do you want ethics reform, or are you just trying to malign your opposition?

UtahTeacher said...

So a question for our Utah Teacher; do you want ethics reform, or are you just trying to malign your opposition?

Hello, Rep. Fisher,
This is rather ironic considering your personal attack on Rep. Allen with no details. Introducing an "unfriendly amendment" is only an ethics violation to Speaker Curtis whose ethics consist of "don't cross me." As to "false and misleading information," do you think an anonymous blog comment has more credibility than one of our best legislators? I am more than willing to see what you consider "false and misleading" if you are willing to do the work to tell me where to find her comments. The audio of both the committee and floor debates is here:

I have no problems with open enrollment in general, even though it is favored by many anti-public ed. groups.

I regard Rep. Allen receiving administrative leave to serve as a godsend in a predominantly anti-education legislature that treats the Eagle Forum as a reliable resource of information. I have no problem with any company granting permission for their employee to take time off to serve or with Police Chief Greiner serving. I think Bernick's article on conflicts was extremely overblown.

Being employed outside the legislature is not the same as being an actual registered lobbyist like Sen. Stephenson and Rep. Seelig (a Republican and a Democrat). It is not the same as Sen. Bramble ramming through a tax break for Delta in the closing hour and abusing his position for the float, or Rep.'s Tilton and Noel straight out lying about their conflicts after blatantly using their committee positions to try and leverage multi-billion dollar investments.

It is ridiculous to even compare the situations.

Anonymous said...

Dear Utah Teacher,

Contrary to your false accusations, I am not Representative Fisher. My comment is made anonymously because you are anonymous, not to mention venomous. I’d like to understand your comment:

I have no problems with open enrollment in general, even though it is favored by many anti-public ed. groups.

Who are you talking about, the National PTA? And what difference does it make. Would you deny a mother the opportunity to save a child that is failing in one environment just because a group that you hate is in favor of giving the mother some choices?

As for Representative Allen. Under the current legislative rules, she was free to do and say whatever she wanted without considering her conflict of interest. (If we are to have real ethics reform it must affect all legislators, not just those you disagree with).

I would suggest to you that the fact that she is a public school administrator means that she is respected and trusted. With that trust comes a responsibility not to abuse it.

For over a year her constituents have meet with legislators in committee hearings and with the state school board. It had been well established that the Davis School District’s policy for denying boundary variance was not based on capacity at all. In one case extreme case, a school had room for an additional 1300 students but still rejected 70 transfer requests. Obviously only a small number of legislators had been in those committee and board hearings. So when she told the full house that the Davis District only denies a transfer request for capacity reasons. Her statement was false and misleading. It is entirely possible that she guessed (that would be negligent) or that someone in the district lied to her and she was acting in good faith. But never the less it was false, misleading and sent a message to the House of Representatives that they can either trust her, the school representative, or the parents. Fortunately, Representative Holdaway, knew the facts and cut her off.

UtahTeacher said...

Hi anon, I'm glad you came back.
I'll admit my Rep. Fisher comment was snarkier than I usually try to be in the blog. Sorry about that. But my comments on the honesty and ethics of Senators Stephenson, Madsen, Dayton, Peterson, and Bramble or Representatives Curtis, Frank, Sandstrom, Tilton, etc. are understated if anything.

I think open enrollment can help overall efficiency of school use and individual students as you stated. And I absolutely worry when a bill is advocated by Parents for Choice in Education. Their update last Friday stated how happy they were about HB 349. They take good things and use them as wedges for further movements which damage public education. Case-in-point—the Carson Smith program. It is a fabulous program that addresses real need. It is not the same or even directly comparable to a general voucher program, but just as educators worried upon its passage, it was constantly used as justification for vouchers during the Referendum 1 debate. Even while supporting open enrollment between public schools, I worry that it will be used by right-wing Republicans as the camel's nose in the tent for further publically-funded "open enrollment" into private schools, i.e. vouchers.

Of your accusations, there are things I can address and things I can't accurately evaluate. Making an "unfriendly amendment" is not unethical. You can argue the content of an amendment is unethical, but the act of introducing an amendment is a legitimate part of the process. Part-time legislature vs. full-time legislature can be argued, but I much prefer a part-time legislature with its attendant problems. Rep. Allen serving is a good thing, just as I like the fact that a police chief serves in the Senate. When they comment on education or law enforcement bills, it does not even come close to the level of conflict of Tilton’s multi-billion dollar scam or Bramble’s Delta tax break. You’re telling me that ethics reform means making sure representatives spin things the way you want them to while speaking on the house floor.

I don’t know if the enrollment numbers you state are true or not. I have some trouble believing any school in Utah has room for 1300 more students. At the very least, you obviously have a vested interest and take on the events of those Davis District meetings. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it colors how I take your information.

It reminds me of the Investigations Math mess in Alpine District. A lot of the “problem” really was overblown. All of the teachers that I knew, whether math teachers or other subjects, who had children attending school in the district thought the program was great at teaching real problem-solving skills. Some parents really did refuse to see the real merit in the program and used the program as an excuse to grind other ideological axes. But at the same time, many of the complaints were valid. Lack of training, over-dependence on the program with no individual accommodations, and lack of mastery put teachers in a bad position, angered parents, and hurt a lot of students. District officials were heavy-handed, condescending, ridiculously inflexible, and over-sensitive to criticism from either parents or teachers. If they would have worked more with both the community and the faculties in reaching the original decision to move to Investigations Math, and also addressed legitimate concerns with improvements in balance and teaching methodologies, I think Investigations would have benefited students. At the very least, the decisions would have been more fully understood and supported and avoided a lot of the rancor.

So I have no way of evaluating what you say here. I’ve heard claims similar to yours that the district is making one-sided decisions without considering community input, and claims that families are trying to overcrowd popular schools and refusing to acknowledge logical and fair boundary decisions made necessary by growth. I could believe that district officials, including Rep. Allen, were stubborn or short-sighted, and I could also believe that some parents refused to compromise or accommodate reality.

So I generally know and support Rep. Allen’s voting record in the legislature, especially on education. I am happy to have a pro-education voice among the pro-privatization crowd on the hill. I have heard conflicting reports about Davis boundary disputes, and you admit that you don’t know the motivation of Rep. Allen’s remarks that you found inaccurate. I will continue to support her individually, as well as the right of educators to serve in the legislature. We can at least agree that Rep. Holdaway is an extremely well-informed, trustworthy legislator.

Anonymous said...

The issues facing public education are monumental. How can recruit and retain the best and the brightest teachers? How can we empower parents to take a more active role? How can we increase the graduation rate? How can we improve reading literacy? The issues go on and on.

Some are offended when issues are brought up because they believe it is teacher bashing. Others bring the issues up because they really are teacher bashing.

But the fact that we have challenging issues remain, and we must talk about them and we must work together to solve them. We can not blindly reject information just because they have a different philosophical position (i.e. Parents for Choice in Education) nor can we blindly accept information just because it comes from someone with similar philosophical positions (i.e. the Alpine School Board).

In “God We Trust, Everyone Else Must Bring Data”.

Representative Holdaway and Moss are two strong advocates of your educational philosophy. Normally they are in lock step with Rep Allen on education issues. Both carefully reviewed the open enrollment data through several committee meetings (administrative rules committee) and based their decision to support HB349 on the data not based on the fact that the Association of School Boards, Association of Superintendents and the Utah PTA opposed it.

I suspect the opposition from these groups came because they blindly took the side of the davis school district rather than asking for the data.

I really hope we can come to the point where we can have a civil and even respectful dialog about education reform ideas.

As for legislative ethics reform. It is also a very complicated problem. I don’t have the answers, but I know that the right solution will be hard for both sides of the isle and will impact almost every issue facing the state. You can’t solve the issue you have with Tilton or Bramble without also address a similar issue with Allen.

UtahTeacher said...

I can't tell if you are the same anon as before or not.

But the fact that we have challenging issues remain, and we must talk about them and we must work together to solve them. We can not blindly reject information just because they have a different philosophical position (i.e. Parents for Choice in Education) nor can we blindly accept information just because it comes from someone with similar philosophical positions (i.e. the Alpine School Board).

In “God We Trust, Everyone Else Must Bring Data”.

Amen brother or sister. I can agree with about 91.265% of your post. I hope you noticed that I said I support open enrollment. I also disagree with the Alpine School Board as often as not, which I also mentioned in my post. I don't think they're ideological nuts like some of my unfavorite legislators, but I think they are too often short-sighted and bureaucratic. (We won't get started on PCE.)

Dialogue is crucial. I think Reps. Holdaway and Moss voting against the recommendation of the PTA, school boards, etc. shows their independence and quality.

I suspect the opposition from these groups came because they blindly took the side of the davis school district rather than asking for the data.

As I said, I don't know. It's certainly a plausible explanation, but the opposite could also be true.

We'll just have to agree to disagree here:

You can’t solve the issue you have with Tilton or Bramble without also address a similar issue with Allen.

The lobbyist abuse is a bigger problem by an order of magnitude than the inherent weaknesses of a part-time legislature. (Though I agree it spans both political parties.) If Allen is in reality lying/spinning information, I think that is a problem with her as an individual rather than an ethics problem in general of educators in the legislature. You supported Rep. Holdaway in his ability to make an independent decision.