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Bob Bernick Jr.: DeLay could be wishing he were a Utah politician

With the indictment this week of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, on one charge of conspiracy involving money laundering in funneling corporate donations to Texas legislative races, one has to notice how such a thing would be perfectly legal in Utah.

In fact, Utah has a history of such lax laws governing political corruption, campaign finances and official misconduct that even when something clearly unethical happens here, the actions are not illegal at all.

For 100 years, it has been illegal in Texas for corporations to give money to Texas legislative races. DeLay, a very smart politician, knew if Republicans could get control of the state Legislature, they could redraw the U.S. House districts in the state, making them more favorable to Republicans, and get more seats from Texas. In turn, that would shore up the relatively small majority that Republicans held in the 435-member U.S. House.

I won't go into all the details, but a Texas grand jury charges that DeLay and others set up a political committee that got Texas corporations to give around $200,000 to the national Republican Party, which in turn made donations back to the PAC, which then gave it to GOP legislative candidates.

Republicans did win control of the Texas Legislature in 2002, redrew the U.S. House district lines (you may recall that the Democratic legislators twice actually fled Texas in an attempt to deny a quorum and slow down this process), and in the 2004 elections, Republicans gained something like six more GOP seats in the Texas delegation to Congress.

Such charges and shenanigans could not have happened in Utah.

That's because businesses can give all the money they want in state legislative races. You don't need to launder anything.

In fact, a late-2004 study by the Deseret Morning News shows that by far most Utah legislators get the lion's share of their campaign funds (a few got 100 percent) from special-interest groups, mainly businesses and/or associations that have issues before the Legislature year in and year out.

DeLay wouldn't have been indicted in Utah; he would likely have been praised as an effective leader.

But even when sleazy things happen here, there are often no legal consequences, maybe not even any political fallout.

The best examples of this, perhaps, were the actions of former Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini.

While saying she had done nothing wrong, Corradini (a Democrat) agreed with a bankruptcy court to repay a large sum of money to the court in proceedings involving a firm she was once associated with.

The mayor said she was probably going to have to sell her large house up by the block "U" on the north bench to make the settlement.

But instead of selling her house, she solicited $10,000 "gifts" from local bigwigs (taking more than $200,000 in total), some of whom had had dealings with the city. She was doing this while running for re-election in 1995 but didn't tell the public about it.

She won re-election, and when the gifts finally did come to light, the then-Salt Lake County attorney (a Republican) said he couldn't file charges against the mayor because Utah's applicable laws were so vague and weak, there was no case. Corradini could not be removed from office — even if city residents had wanted her out — because Utah has no recall election provisions. She served out her term but did not seek re-election.

On a much smaller scale, we've learned this week that Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert has accepted use of a free, furnished condominium in an exclusive east-side complex since he took office with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. in January.

The gift was reported as an in-kind contribution on Huntsman's political action committee report. And Herbert says the condo is being sold by its owner and he won't be using it again, commuting daily from his Orem home.

Deseret Morning News investigative reporter Lee Davidson, who covered Congress for more than 15 years, says a congressman or senator would be in big trouble if he accepted free housing, yet, again, there is no Utah law prohibiting such an "intangible" gift from coming to a state executive.

In an unrelated faux pas, Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson readily admitted last week that he used city funds to purchase liquor while entertaining visitors on official city business, even though there is a city policy against using taxpayer funds to buy alcohol. Anderson calls the policy "absurd" and will change it.

Over the years, this or that Utah legislator has introduced a bill that would set up an independent ethics commission to rule on questionable actions by public officials. The bills have all failed.

Currently, the Utah Senate and House have ethics committees that can review a complaint made by three of the bodies' members. But in the rare instance when a complaint is made (there is great institutional pressure not to sign such a complaint letter), legislators are routinely found innocent by their peers.

Twenty years ago, a House Democrat was on the verge of being expelled for a shoplifting conviction when she resigned. Since then, other members have resigned after being cited for sex-related offenses, or retired when their personal or professional problems grew so large it was clear they couldn't win re-election.

The point is, Utah remains a state where politicians have great leeway in raising money from anyone, spending it any way they want, being entertained in any fashion at any cost, and breaking no law, seeing little or no political consequences.

You have to steal a shirt or solicit a police decoy to get in real trouble.

You can take $200,000 from "friends" or accept hundreds of dollars in food and Jazz tickets from lobbyists seeking your vote. You can hop on a private jet for a round trip to a University of Utah bowl game. It's all legal.

Tom DeLay may well regret he wasn't born, raised and elected in Utah.

Deseret Morning News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@