Friday, September 25, 2009

Part 2 of Utah County ethics initiative hearing: a little Karl Snow, a lot of Janet Jensen, and a dash of Craig Dennis

Back for more ethics reform rehash...

First, I want to add a note to my last post. I am glad the rude woman passed out literature opposing the initiative. I had already been contemplating whether to ask the lady in front of me who already had a copy if I could see hers. I think we all need the most information possible and I have constitutional concerns about the bill, though I am still processing much of what I heard last night and haven’t had time to do any research. I just strongly disagree with her interrupting a presentation blatantly and rudely. She could easily have passed out the information at the door after the meeting. Or if she felt it was important that those attending have those arguments during the meeting as the various points were discussed, she should have planned ahead and been there early enough to pass out the papers to the citizens as they arrived at the meeting. I stood at the check-in table for a few moments looking for all the information available and would have snatched up those bullet points. Disagreeing strongly with something and running late aren’t excuses to behave like a jerk.

Here’s the last bit of Karl Snow’s presentation, with some commentary in parentheses and links thrown in by me:

One man had $300,000+ of campaign money in a bank account. He donated liberally to other Republicans and became Speaker of the House for 2 terms. (This was Greg Curtis and Snow did not mention his name, or the fact that he was a brash, combative man, worked during and after holding office to use his influence to make sweetheart deals for his clients, and became a lucrative lobbyist for the tobacco industry among others as soon as he left office, causing even the entrenched GOP enough embarrassment to pass a 1-yr moratorium for departing legislators to work as lobbyists.)

There were over 30 ethics bills introduced, few made it out of committee, and those that passed had very little effect. (The only significant reform was unintentional.)

Is the current system working? The Standard Examiner, the Tribune, and the Deseret News have editorialized in favor of the initiative. That’s 3 major papers. He also mentioned KSL editorializing in favor of the initiative. (But failed to mention the editorial in favor with lukewarm caveats from the Daily Herald, which considering the rightwing tone of that editorial page ever since Obama's candidacy gathered steam last year, is the equivalent of a banner ad in favor of reform anywhere else.

We're widely acknowledged as one of the best managed states. Why should we not also be recognized as one of the most ethical?

Karl Snow then introduced the next presenter, and the person who answered most of the questions about the initiative text and legality as the meeting went on, Janet Jensen . She had a list of qualifications: law school, medical lawyer, some other stuff.

Janet Jensen’s remarks: She helped write the initiative. She said they sent the draft to constitutional law scholars at other universities and law schools to check if the law would pass constitutional muster. (She repeated this point several times during the meeting and included “deans of law schools” later, but never mentioned exactly which draft or which parts of this wide-ranging proposal the drafting group supposedly sent. She also never mentioned any of the actual people or schools they consulted. I’m left wondering if the entire proposal as it currently stands received wide approval.)

Democracy is hard work. The members of Utahns for Ethical Government all volunteer, no one has been paid a dime.

We support elected representatives doing their duty, but when unresponsive, the people act. We have seen that sadly the legislators respond more to people who give them money than ordinary citizens.

The legislature has raised the concern that the state will be overwhelmed by initiatives. (or “run by initiatives like California.” That is a quote from Senator Bramble at a citizen meeting a year ago speaking of just the voucher referendum and high bars for referendums and initiatives.) The concern is overblown.
Oregon has had 349 voter initiatives in its history.
Califonia 331
Utah has had only 20 voter initiatives in the history of the state.
(I’m assuming these numbers reference state-wide referendums, but I don’t know. County or municipal initiatives could be included in those numbers.)

Article 1, Section 1 of Utah State Constitution establishes 2 sources of legislative power—the legislature and with equal power, the people. ( I don’t know if I wrote that wrong or Jensen quoted it wrong--wouldn’t surprise me either way--, but I think she mixed up 2 separate relevant articles. Article 1, Section 2 of the Utah State Constitution refers to all political power being inherent in the people, and Article 6, Section 1 says what she explained, that legislative power is also specifically designated to the “people of the state of Utah” so that “the legal voters of the state of Utah” may “initiate any desired legislation” and pass it by a majority vote, as provided by statute—i.e. the signature requirements and deadlines imposed by the legislature.) This is fascinating to me. Initiatives and referendums are specifically designated in the state constitution.

You can read the whole initiative at
It has three basic parts:
Independent Ethics Commission
Legislative Code of Conduct, enforced by legislature
Outlines procedures to implement above

It is a non-partisan, neutral ethics commission. There will be 5 individuals in staggered terms on the commission. (Missed stuff here.) They are not paid. (I wrote in my notes here [per diem, not count?] I had read the bill and knew they receive the per diem. This came up later and showed some lack of preparation by Jensen and hypocrisy by legislators yelling from the back.)

(This is another part where I thought Jensen was fuzzy on specifics.) Jensen was addressing the concerns that any 3 people can bring charges to the ethics commission against a legislator.

What I heard was that under current statute--any one person may launch a criminal complaint against a legislator. Under the new process of complaint if the initiative were to pass, any 3 people could complain to the ethics commission, paying their own legal costs. (I didn’t get this. Currently, only 3 other members of the House or Senate can bring ethics charges to the current ethics committees. I suppose anyone can accuse a legislator of a crime, but that will be the same regardless of whether the initiative passes next year or not. I think she’s comparing apples to oranges. Right now only other legislators can bring ethics complaints to the committee; under the new law, any three people would be able to bring ethics charges to the commission. Anyone can file a criminal complaint against a legislator now; anyone will still be able to file a criminal complaint then. It seems this point is a very weak justification if any.)
The legislator complained of gets his/her legal fees paid. The commission merely makes a recommendation to the legislature. They can do what they want with the recommendation, even ignore it completely.

There will be mandatory ethics training. I am surprised at how many legislators don’t understand when they have a conflict of interest. (This is where Jensen inserted some snide jabs. This sarcastic side was often funny to me since I agreed with the jokes about campaign money, but it also came out in some rougher remarks during the back-and-forths in the Q&A session later. The angry remarks often made Jensen appear less sympathetic and sometimes condescending. My relative thought she just cracked a little under the hostile scrutiny and attention from the legislative buddies in the back as evidenced by her sarcasm increasing toward the end of the session after several opposing questions.) They don't understand ethics. They don’t always understand the law since they are not lawyers. They just don't understand. I shouldn't be surprised, but I am.

There will be no more personal use of campaign money allowed. Legislators will not be able to contribute to other campaigns w/ their own campaign funds. They cannot be lobbyists while serving or for 2 years after serving in office. There will be a complete gift ban, except for neglible refreshments at public events.

A legislator can ask for a written opinion or interpretation from the commission on a certain issue. This is commonly done in congress and other federal areas—these “safe harbor” letters make the congressman immune from prosecution if pursuing a course permitted by the commission via this letter. .

Legislators cannot threaten courts—we had a very public case of this recently—or interfere with them or members of state government. The legislature cannot accept donations from corporate, union, or non-profit organizations. Corporations have never been able to donate to federal campaigns. If money remaining in a legislator’s campaign account is not spent in 5 yrs, the money will revert to the school fund or to a non-profit charity of the legislator’s choice. The legislators must disclose conflicts of interest in much more detail than currently allowed. The disclosures will be available to public. File contributions w/ Lt. governor’s office. Legislators cannot be on corporate boards where they were hired just because of their position. (Many of these last points were explained more fully, but this is the gist.)

She then clicked through her powerpoint, repeating most of these points since she had forgotten to click on the applicable slides while speaking.

A guy sitting down asked a question while she fiddled with the powerpoint and she answered. This was before the formal, structured Q&A later. The man asked for clarification of when any ethics charges become public. The Executive Director of the commission vets initial complaints along with staff. This is not public. They don’t do discovery, research, subpoena, anything like that. It is informal inquiry to those involved and the accused is an informal participant. If the Executive Director finds that the charge has any basis, the charge goes before the full commission and is made public. The commission can subpoena documents and witnesses. The legislator is a full participant and can defend his/herself with lawyer of their choice. Cross examination and facing the accusers are part of this process. The hearing(s) of the commission where all this takes place is public. The deliberations of the 5 commissioners to make a decision are not public. However, when they decide, they must release written findings and recommendations which are public. They send these findings and recommendations to the legislature. The legislature can choose to hold their own hearings, debate, to investigate, reject, adopt, modify, etc. They can do whatever they want with the recommendation—it does not legally bind the legislature to a course of action. All these deliberations would be public too. (Though I don’t think that last assertion is correct. I believe the legislature could continue to hold closed hearings like the ethics hearings last year if they chose. The initiative would not bind them to open meetings like the commission would be.)

Craig Dennis, former publisher of Daily Herald, served on numerous editorial boards, member of Provo Rotary Club, on Board of Directors of United Way of Utah County, registered Republican, upstanding, forthright individual, etc. blah blah, then briefly endorsed the initiative. I think he was mainly there for name recognition and endorsement purposes.

Craig Dennis' remarks severely summarized: “Do the right thing and sign the petition.”

That’s all for tonight. I'm tired. I blame any typos on the legislature. I’ll get to the Q&A session which got contentious in a post this weekend.