Utah's campaign finance disclosure law appears to be going the way of jaywalking, spitting on the sidewalk and traveling violations in the NBA. It may still be on the books, but nobody is enforcing it.
This is more than just a shame. It is further fuel for the mistrust many people feel toward elected officials. The state ought to consider setting up an independent agency to investigate whether candidates and office holders comply with the law. Perhaps only an organization free from political pressures could do so fairly and equitably.Too many politicians seem to be ignoring the law. Since 1992, at least 27 legislators who decided not to seek re-election failed to disclose how much money was in their campaign accounts when they left office. Some had little or nothing to disclose, but others pocketed thousands of dollars that were left over, according to a Deseret News report.
People donate to a campaign to further a politician's ability to serve the public. As such, the money becomes a public trust. The public has a right to know which groups or individuals have donated and may expect favors once a candidate is elected. The public also has a right to know what happens to money that is left at the end of a politician's failed bid, or at the end of a political career.
State law requires all candidates for state office and the Legislature to file periodic disclosures, including one at the end of every even-numbered year. Retiring or resigning office holders must file year-end statements until their campaign accounts show a zero balance. Failure to do so is a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Utah Lt. Gov. Olene Walker says her office lacks the authority and the manpower to enforce the law. Her staff calls candidates to plead with them to file statements, but the effort is directed exclusively at candidates, not at retiring officeholders. Meanwhile, the law gives the Attorney General's Office the responsibility to prosecute violations.
However, it may be unrealistic to expect any agency that relies directly on the Legislature for its yearly budget to investigate violations that may end up nabbing legislators. Lawmakers ought to consider establishing an investigatory system that is as independent as possible from political influences.
Otherwise, politicians can only lose by continuing to ignore the law in the face of damaging publicity.