In the ongoing arguments over legislative ethics and conflict of interest reporting, of-ten it's two steps forward and one step back.
Thursday evening a group of politicians, journalists and citizens agreed that much progress has been made over the past year with the passage of new, tougher campaign disclosure and lobbyist reporting laws. Two weeks ago, lawmakers agreed to voluntarily file more detailed conflict of interest forms. Two steps forward.But in a separate meeting Thursday afternoon between Lt. Gov. Val Oveson and about 90 registered lobbyists, Oveson admitted that his original intent of requiring more disclosure under the new lobbyist reporting law isn't possible. A step back.
The Utah Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics co-sponsored a panel discussion on politicians and ethics. On the panel were House Speaker Craig Moody, R-Sandy, a proponent of several legislative reform measures; former lobbyist and now-Salt Lake County Commissioner Randy Horiuchi; Utah Common Cause chairman Nelda Bishop; and LaVarr Webb, former managing editor of the Deseret News and now publisher of PowerBase, a journal of Utah politics, media and government.
KUER-TV's Ken Verdoia, panel moderator, said legislators have not striven for ethics reform but tiptoed on small cat's feet. "There is no clear definition between saint and sinner in the Legislature."
Bishop, whose group advocates open, ethical government, said Utah is 20 years behind the rest of the nation in conflict of interest, campaign and other legislative disclosure. "You read the (old) disclosure forms (of Utah House members) and it's clear they don't know what conflict of interest is," she said. She added she's never seen any bills killed as quickly and quietly as the Common Cause-backed conflict of interest disclosure measures died in recent years in the House and Senate.
Moody, who said overall the ethics of his colleagues are outstanding, admitted that he continues to be troubled by attorney/law-makers who take clients who have financial interests in legislative matters. "It happens with the attorneys (in the Legislature) more than anyone. I think a lot of it isn't moral, by my moral standards, but it is allowed (under current ethic rules)," the speaker said.
Horiuchi and Moody agreed that, for the most part, ethical problems are handled satisfactorily, but quietly, behind the scenes. Moody said on several occasions he's kept legislators off committees that deal directly with the legislators' business.
Last session, legislators overwhelmingly passed a new lobbyist reporting law. As amended, the law requires that a registered lobbyist list, in total, all monies spent lobbying legislators. If the lobbyist spends more than $100 in a "single expenditure" entertaining or lobbying a legislator, the amount and the legislator's name must also be listed.
The key phrase is single expenditure, Oveson told about 90 lobbyist attending a briefing Thursday in the State Capitol. Ove-son, the state's chief election officer, is charged in the law with overseeing the lobbyists' reports.
For some time Oveson has been saying that he interprets the wording to mean a "continuous event." For example, if a lawmaker attended a dinner, then took a bus ride to a U. of U. football game, if the whole event - dinner, bus ride and game tickets - cost the lobbyist more than $100 per lawmaker, the lawmaker's name would have to be listed.
But a number of powerful lobbyists disagreed Thursday with that interpretation. Several said they'd "fight" Oveson over it. They argue that some legislators wouldn't attend the dinner but may drive to the game themselves. Thus, it would be unfair to list them as getting $100 for the whole day when in fact their football tickets cost only $30. Oveson relented. "It's a bad law with many loopholes in it, but the concept is good," he said. Oveson says the law should be clarified in the 1992 session. Gov. Norm Bangerter believes the individual reporting limit should be $25, not $100. But in heated debates in the House and Senate the $25 limit was narrowly defeated in favor of the higher amount.
"We think the law should say continuous event or may within a 24-hour period. We believe the real intent of the Legislature is to get more individualized listing (legislator's names), not the gross, overall total spent on lobbying," said Deputy Lt. Gov. Dave Hansen.
The reality of Oveson's decision means that few if any legislators will be individually listed on lobbyists' forms. By breaking out same-day events into separate categories under $100, a legislator can attend a $300 or $400 day or a $1,000 weekend of entertainment and not be named on the lobbyist's form.