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Lawmaker's romance with lobbyist raises brows

Conflicts of interest are inherent with a citizen Legislature.

However, an emerging personal relationship between House Majority Leader Christine Fox and well-heeled lobbyist Fred Finlinson is raising eyebrows - particularly considering Finlinson's efforts to lobby the electrical deregulation task force that Fox chairs."I see it as a non-issue," Fox, R-Lehi, told the Deseret News. "I don't see it as a conflict of interest."

But others do. Members of the Electrical Deregulation and Customer Choice Task Force and the legislative Public Utilities and Technology Committee have expressed concerns. So have members of Republican leadership that have met with Fox informally to discuss the "appearance of conflict."

House Majority Whip Kevin Garn, R-Layton, said Fox has had no "formal" warning from House GOP leaders. "Informally, yes, some (leaders) have talked with her about their concerns. This is a very sensitive issue" dealing with a colleague they all respect and admire, he said.

"But electrical deregulation is also extremely important. It impacts a lot of Utahns. We believe Chris will do the right thing" in dealing with the possible conflicts, Garn said. He said Fox had not been asked to step aside as House chairwoman of the committee.

Fox, who aspires to be the next speaker of the House, was widowed more than 10 years ago when her husband was killed in an ATV accident. Finlinson, a former state senator-turned-lobbyist who now has a host of high-profile clients, was widowed last summer when his wife died suddenly of an acute medical problem while hiking with him in the Wasatch Mountains.

Fox and Finlinson, who knew each other as colleagues and friends while serving in the Legislature together, have been dating a few weeks and have discussed marriage.

"We are not engaged," Fox said. "But we have told people we are talking about it (getting married)."

Both are attorneys with the Salt Lake law firm of Callister, Nebeker and McCullough. Fox, who put herself through college and BYU law school while raising a family as a single parent, began working at the firm a year ago as a clerk. She has since passed the bar and is now a practicing attorney.

The business relationship - both Finlinson and Fox in the same firm - prompted concerns months ago about whether Fox, the lawmaker, could deal fairly with the electrical deregulation issue in which her firm's clients had a vested interest.

Now, the personal relationship between Fox and the law firm's chief representative before the task force has aggravated those concerns.

"I believe Chris is honorable, but how can we be certain we will get a fair hearing before the task force?" questioned one consumer advocate. "Will anyone get a fair hearing if she's got a personal interest in only one side of the story?"

Finlinson is currently lobbying for the state's large industrial interests, including the likes of Geneva Steel and Nucor Steel. The concerns of industrial consumers of electricity are radically different than those of residential or small-business consumers, or those of PacifiCorp, the major supplier of electrical power in the state.

The task force has been meeting two to three times a month to try to balance the concerns of the three powerful interest groups as it develops legislation for the 1998 session. The legislation will begin a deregulation process expected to take several years to implement.

Several citizen watchdog groups, especially United We Stand Utah, have been critical of the way Gov. Mike Leavitt and the Legislature have approached electrical deregulation.

Several GOP leaders said Wednesday that they didn't want Fox's actions in her personal life, no matter how innocent, to raise questions that critics of deregulation could use to derail the huge effort being made in that area.

"If it detracts, and I think it does, then she should step aside as chairman of the task force," said one GOP leader. "It looks bad."

The relationship also raises questions about whether Fox can distance herself from Finlinson's stable of high-profile clients, or whether the relationship now gives Finlinson direct access to GOP leadership.

Among Finlinson's clients are American Stores, Intermountain Health Care, Sears, Sinclair Oil and Zion Bank.

Fox said she has no intention of stepping aside as chairwoman of the task force, but she also promises the draft legislation - to be unveiled sometime next month - will have every opportunity for public hearings. "The task force and Legislature will have every opportunity to dissect that bill. There won't be anything jammed down their throats or done in secret," she said.

She insists she has never shown any favoritism as chair of the committee, saying Finlinson had 10 minutes to make his points before the task force, just as dozens of others have had.

"I give my word I will be as fair as I can be," she said.