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Dan Liljenquist: Ethics is not a partisan issue

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, right, with tSalt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams talk about facts and supporting documents regarding job termination of former staffer member Justin Miller, May 13, 2015, in Salt Lake City.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, right, with tSalt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams talk about facts and supporting documents regarding job termination of former staffer member Justin Miller, May 13, 2015, in Salt Lake City.
Tom Smart,

Most of us have heard the philosophical thought experiment, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” While philosophers might argue that the perception of an event is the substance of its reality, to anyone with a lick of common sense, the answer is yes, even if you were not there to hear it.

So to my Utah Democratic friends, I pose the following ethical question: “If a legislator steals from his employer and no one holds him accountable, has he broken the public trust?” To me, this answer is an equally obvious yes!

Salt Lake County Mayor, Democrat Ben McAdams, has publicly accused his former campaign manager and current Democratic state legislator, Justin Miller, of embezzlement. Last fall, McAdams confronted Miller about a check Miller made out to himself that allegedly drained $24,388 from McAdams’ campaign account. McAdams wisely recorded the conversation, as reported by several news outlets. In the recording, Miller carefully avoids admitting fault, but readily acknowledges that he should repay the campaign the full $24,388. He states that he “owns up to” other “mistakes”, but then refuses to acknowledge what those “mistakes” were.

McAdams presses Miller multiple times to explain himself and demands that Miller fully reimburse his campaign. Miller appears to agree to repay McAdams’ campaign, only to bizarrely demand towards the end of the conversation that McAdams apologize for accusing him of wrongdoing. Following the meeting, McAdams reported Miller to the Salt Lake County Police Department for allegedly embezzling funds from McAdams’ campaign. Miller is currently under investigation by Salt Lake County Attorney Sim Gill.

Two and a half years ago, when I read the full transcript of the infamous Krispy Kreme conversation between then-Attorney General John Swallow and accused fraudster Jeremy Johnson, I immediately called on Swallow to resign. I stated then that while public officials are certainly entitled to due process under the law, they do not have a right to the public’s trust. The Krispy Kreme conversation destroyed my trust in Swallow, and I felt compelled to personally call for his resignation. I did so well before public opinion turned against him.

It is incumbent upon all of us to steadfastly defend the integrity of our public institutions, but this is especially true for those who are actively involved in the political process. And so I ask, where are the calls for Miller’s resignation? Where are the investigative reporters who relentlessly pressed the Swallow issue but have largely ignored this story? Where are the Democratic leaders who demanded the highest standards of ethics in government during the Swallow saga but have characterized this incident as an employer vs. employee dispute? For that matter, where are the Republican leaders who so courageously pursued a legislative investigation into Swallow’s conduct but have neglected to investigate one of their own? Why has not the Alliance for a Better Utah weighed in more forcefully here when they have been so eager to point out ethical lapses among Republicans?

Ethics is not a partisan issue. At least it should not be. I wonder if Rep. Miller would be getting the same gentle treatment from both parties and the press if he had an R behind his name, rather than a D.

Some might argue that Miller’s alleged conduct does not rise to the same level as Swallow’s, but we should not grade ethical lapses on a curve. Miller’s inability to explain himself in this matter is clearly a breach of public trust.

Miller should resign from the Legislature.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and former U.S. Senate candidate.