Utah Government Launches New Ethics Website

Think you have cause to file an ethics complaint against a leading member of Utah State Government – someone elected to the executive, legislative or judicial branches?

How about an ethics complaint concerning an elected member of county or city government?

Now there is one internet site that explains how to go about it, whether you even have standing to make such a complaint and how Utah’s ethics laws work: http://ethics.utah.gov.

It’s the brainchild of Senate Chief of Staff Ric Cantrell and other legislative branch staffers – with the support of their elected bosses.

Cantrell details it this way:

“The Legislature created an Independent Legislative Ethics Commission in 2010.

“Then a commission for the counties, towns, local districts, and other subdivisions in 2012.  

“In 2013, (legislators) created the Executive Branch Ethics Commission for the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer and auditor.”

(This executive branch ethics commission came into being too late to deal with charges against former AG John Swallow – his questionable actions took place before the commission’s effective date.)  

Adds Cantrell, the Judicial Conduct Commission was created by the Legislature way back in 1971, then established in the Utah Constitution in 1985.

A number of changes in how the Judicial Conduct Commission acts have been enacted over the years. 

The new website puts all in one place – for easy access and consideration – the various Utah code references, forms required, processes and so forth.

“This website gathers much of that info into one place, with rules, standards, process, instructions, FAQs, contact info, etc.,” says Cantrell.

For example, every year the part-time private attorney who oversees the Legislative Ethics Commission must report to legislative leaders how many complaints have been filed against the 104 part-time legislators and where those complaints are in the process.

(Complaints are kept private during early deliberations by the citizen commission.)

The last two years there have been no formal complaints against any legislator – which considering what’s happening in other states has to be considered a good thing.

The new website just compiles the current law and provides explanations on how complaints can be filed.

It does not hasten, or make such complaints, easier.

After much discussion several years ago, lawmakers decided in the end that no complaint can go forward against one of themselves unless a stringent rule is met: at least one of the complainants must have personal, first-hand evidence that an ethics violation has occurred.

In other words, one of the complainants must have seen or overheard the violation – it can’t be a person has reason to believe, or heard a rumor or anything like that.

That is, admittedly, a high bar to reach.

If, for example, a lobbyist were to offer a lawmaker a large campaign donation in return to help out/vote on a bill the lobbyist wants, that would be an ethics violation (and perhaps a criminal violation, as well.)

To get a murder conviction, a prosecutor doesn’t have to produce a witness who actually saw the murder take place.

But one of the complainants would have to have been standing there, or listening in, when the legislative ethics violation was made.

Still, the new site provides a one-stop-shopping area to learn about Utah’s public officials ethics laws and a starting place to bring a properly-formatted ethics complaint.

Says Cantrell: “These commissions aren't the only ethics games in town, of course. These new commissions are in addition to policy adjustments, ethics trainings and new rules implemented over the past several years.”

From time to time legislators adopt stricter internal rules that apply to qualified expenses, how they can use their campaign accounts and so forth.

In addition, recent governors have issued executive orders detailing how their top lieutenants are to behave in their jobs.

And the Utah Supreme Court also issues rules telling judges how they are to act in their professional capacities.