Lawmakers Ready Bills Targeting Elections and Ethics in 2014

Utah Attorney General John Swallow’s problems and the Count My Vote citizen initiative, which are not connected in any direct way, are just two of the reasons for the relatively large number of election/ethics/legislative investigation bills that are now being drafted for the January general session.


UtahPolicy reviewed the 250 or so public bill files that have been opened as of Nov. 12 by the 104 part-time legislators.

Nearly 15 percent, or 30, have something to do with voting rights, elections, legislative investigation authority, campaign finance, government ethics and/or candidate nominations.

The count, of course, doesn’t include any “protected,” or secret, bills that may have been opened by lawmakers. Legislative rule allows any lawmaker to ask that a “protected” bill be opened and drafted by legislative attorneys.

At a later date the lawmaker may decide to make that secret bill public, or he may just decide not to introduce it at all in the general session and let the matter die quietly.

That’s not to say that all such public bills are connected to the allegations against Swallow, nor the subsequent investigations against him.

Nor are all associated with the effort by Count My Vote supporters to change the way political party primary candidates are handled in Utah.

But there seems to be some themes seen in the UtahPolicy review.

A few examples:

— Rep. Rebecca Chevez-Houck, D-Salt Lake, has a bill that would set up an independent elections commission in Utah.

Currently, election/candidate complaints are handled by the Lieutenant Governor’s State Elections Office.

The LG had to hire an outside special investigator to look into campaign finance complaints against Swallow, because the AG’s office is the official lawyer for the executive branch of government, including the LG’s Elections Office.

That special attorney hopes to wrap up his investigation sometime next month.

Then it will be up to that investigator/attorney to decide on his own whether to file charges against Swallow in state district court.

If he does so, and Swallow is found guilty of any campaign finance violations – not just those the Elections Office recommended to the special attorney – then the 2012 AG’s election could be ruled invalid and Swallow removed from office.

Clearly, an independent elections office could handle such investigations itself, and not have to hire out the operation.

— Rep. Jim Bird, R-West Jordan, has a bill file opened on legislative committee subpoena powers.

The special House investigation committee on Swallow has already issued nearly a dozen subpoenas in its investigation of the AG.

At least one entity, Sofewise, Inc., a payday loan software firm located in Provo that previously employed Swallow, has gone to court seeking to quash the committee’s subpoena.

This is the first time in recent history that the Legislature has issued subpoenas; however, various state laws specifically give the legislative branch of government the power of subpoena, as well as the power to immunize witnesses under certain circumstances.

— Several lawmakers have bill files opened on campaign finance.

Reps. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City; and Brian King, D-Salt Lake; are working together on a bill that would limit campaign donations to any state race – including Legislature and governor – to $10,000 per person or entity.

Currently, Utah is one of the few states that have no campaign donation limits at all.

And a number of government reform advocates believe that it was Swallow’s drive for large, and many, campaign donations for, first, former AG Mark Shurtleff (Swallow was Shurtleff’s main campaign fund raiser for several years) and then himself in his 2011-2012 AG’s race that led to some of what seem to be Swallow’s poor decisions and ethical questions.

— Powell also has a bill file (previously reported on in this UtahPolicy story) that would provide for a dual-track system for political parties and candidates to get on their party’s primary election ballot.

Count My Vote is now gathering voter signatures on a citizen initiative petition that would change the current candidate caucus/convention nomination process.

CMV’s petition would take Utah to a direct primary. Any qualifying candidate could gather 2 percent of his party’s registered voters signatures in his district (or statewide for a U.S. Senate, governor and AG) and go to the party primary.

Powell’s dual-track bill, if passed by the 2014 Legislature, would allow a candidate to either go through the current caucus/convention process to get on his party’s primary ballot, or go through a petition-gathering process.

— Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, also has a bill file entitled Candidate Nomination Amendments.

McCay, as are other legislators, is a strong supporter of the current caucus/convention system. He even attended a recent CMV press conference to debate petition supporters on their initiative.

— Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, has a bill file opened on Government Ethics.

Reid said he’s not finished with the drafting, but it will be “comprehensive” and deal with having a candidate/officeholder more fully report campaign donations and other gifts with an aim toward public disclosure.

Reid has already sent out several emails to his fellow senators detailing his personal concern with the alleged actions of Swallow.

Under the Utah Constitution, the Utah House investigates allegations against a top sitting officeholder, and issues, if two-thirds agree, an article of impeachment against him.

The state Senate then organizes as a jury and hears the case against the officeholder, deciding by two-thirds vote whether he should be removed from office or not.

Thus, it is possible that all 29 senators could be jurymen and women on Swallow.

Reid has said that considering what he’s read and believes concerning Swallow’s actions, he doesn’t know if he can be an impartial juror, should that need arise.

Reid raised the possibility of recusing himself, but has not made that final decision.

Neither the House nor the Senate in their official actions need find that Swallow committed a crime – the AG can be removed for a severe violation of official ethics, as well – or as the Constitution reads: “high crimes, misdemeanors, or malfeasance in office.”