U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright is gone. The victim of ethics questions.
Gone, too, is House Majority Whip Tony Coelho, a Democrat from California. Heis resigning his seat as well because of ethics probes.Wright had a whole slew of problems, but the most visible was his attempt to bypass House outside-income rules by having lobbyists and others buy his book - on which he received a 50 percent royalty - instead of paying him money for speeches (honorariums).
Coelho and some friends got into the junk box market several years ago and made a killing on what is said by opponents to be an inside deal.
All this is very far away from Utah.
Or is it?
Utah legislators have been going through their own ethics debate the past several years. So far they've done almost nothing. But some pretty big changes could be coming.
Of course, the Wright and Coelho problems are very different, mainly because the Congress and Utah Legislature are very different.
Congress is a full-time body. Senators and representatives earn about $90,000 a year in salary, receive fine benefits and can earn 30-40 percent a year of their salaries in outside speaking fees if they want to work that circuit. Senators may raise and spend $5 million in campaigns, House members upwards of $1 million. They're clearly professional politicians.
The Utah Legislature, on the other hand, is part time. Members earn about $3,000 a year (depending on where they live and their travel expenses), have few if any clear benefits and may get a free chicken dinner for speaking, if that much. A state senator may spend $2,000 to $10,000 on an election, a House member a third of that. They don't consider themselves professional politicians, honoring the old tradition of citizen-lawmakers.
But the ethics problems of part-time legislators, while different, can be just as difficult as those of their Washington, D.C., counterparts.
The current debate in the Legislature is over conflict of interest, what it is and how to control it.
Some lawmakers, who are still in the minority, want near-full financial disclosure. But leaders and most other legislators oppose that. Sens. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, and Alarik Myrin, R-Altamont, and Rep. Mont Evans, R-Riverton, have been leading the fight for conflict of interest disclosure with, so far, little success.
But the Wright/Coelho affair may have some impact. Perhaps the old-guard senators and representatives in the Legislature may realize that they, too, could bebrought down in a nasty ethics scandal.
The real concern is over the most obvious cases of conflict of interest - a lawmaker, through a fee to his private business, carrying a cause.
Hillyard, an attorney, Myrin and Evans worry about the lobbyists' cousin - lawyers. There are five attorneys in the 29-member Senate, 11 in the 75-member House.
For years there have been rumors that this or that legislator/attorney has drawn heavily on political contacts in developing a law practice.
Hillyard et al. would like to see any legislator/attorney who has a client who pays him more than $25,000 a year list that client as a possible conflict of interest on financial disclosure documents. They also would like Utah lawmakers to classify their assets, much as members of Congress now do, listing - within broad categories such as between $50,000-$100,000 - income or real estate holdings. But there's stiff opposition to such full disclosure.
Says House Speaker Nolan Karras, R-Roy, "I don't think anyone who gets paid just $3,000 a year and works as hard as legislators do should have to open their personal finances to public inspection."
Still, perhaps Wright and Coelho's downfall will lead to some changes in how the Utah Legislature operates.