Drawing a Line Between Public and Political Work

Sen. Daniel Thatcher wants lawmakers to take a hard look at what he sees as a problem in Utah law.


What happens if a political office holder hires someone to fill a public position, and that person turns around and works on the office holder’s political campaign? Under Utah law, that kind of arrangement is illegal.

But, here’s the problem. Any political work is supposed to be done outside of work hours, but how do you draw a bright line between the two jobs? If someone alleges an impropriety, how do you prove it?

“You cannot promise someone a job if they, in turn, run your campaign,” says Thatcher. “As a legislator, I would love to have someone to be my assistant. That would be great, especially if I could pay them out of someone else’s pot of money and get a free campaign manager at the same time.”

Thatcher says, right now, the law is unenforceable because people have a First Amendment right to work on whatever political campaign they choose, and he’s not willing to infringe on those rights in order to solve the problem.

“The challenge is to prove it,” he says. “For example, how do you prove that a staffer in someone’s office was hired so they could help out on a campaign? Someone should not keep or lose a job based on whether they keep a candidate happy.”

Thatcher hopes to start the discussion on Wednesday during the Political Subdivisions Interim Committee. He thinks the fix could be as simple as requiring employees to disclose the time they spend doing the public’s business and the time they spend working on a campaign.

“We need to look at how we can minimize the potential for fraud. If you are a public employee and you choose to work on a campaign that directly benefits you, maybe you should have to disclose that”

Thatcher says this conundrum highlights the problem with most ethics reform proposals.

“All these kinds of bills do is create problems for ethical people. Unethical people don’t care. For example, we aren’t supposed to take campaign donations on Capitol Hill while we’re working. For me, that’s a big deal. Other people simply walk across the street to take the donation. If I’m not supposed to be taking money when I’m doing legislative business, I don’t take it.”

Thatcher says his motivation is a simple one.

“What good is an unenforceable law? This is clearly happening. I just want to draw attention to the behavior so we can decide if we want to do something about it.