Monday, November 3, 2008

It's the Voters' Turn to Adjudge What's Ethical

I received the following letter written by attorneys David Irvine and Alan Smith this morning. I hope you'll read it, think about what this kind of behavior means for the state of our law-making process, and then vote accordingly. I'll let the letter speak for itself.

We are the attorneys (registered Republicans) who recently were not allowed to put on our clients’ case for ethics violations against Rep. Greg Hughes before the House Ethics Committee. The public may not be aware that, under the House rules of procedure governing ethics hearings, neither the legislators who petition nor their attorneys who have prepared the case for them are given any rights of participation in the ethics process once a complaint is filed. Hence, the committee members, who have no background, information, or knowledge respecting the charges presented, and with no training as investigators or prosecutors, must figure out what evidence might bear upon those charges, determine how to gather and hear that evidence, and adjudge a respondent’s guilt or innocence. In Hughes’s case, moreover, the committee was forced to do all of this on impossibly short notice, secretly, and within an extremely compressed time-line.

Notwithstanding these procedural biases which favor the accused legislator, all 8 members of the ethics committee, Republicans and Democrats, found that Hughes was guilty of “conduct unbecoming a legislator.” This rebuke was seconded with an admonition to apologize for his wrongdoing.

As to the ethics charges themselves, the committee gave Hughes a pass, not because it found him innocent, but because, in the Committee’s view, the legislature’s current ethics standards were too vague to be applied.

Putting the question of ethics aside, and looking at the evidence of crimes, former Republican legislator, Susan Lawrence, testified credibly and forcibly that Hughes had offered her a bribe. This testimony was corroborated by two other Republican legislators, Sheryl Allen and Paul Ray. Many if not all of the key witnesses who testified respecting the misconduct of Hughes, namely, Lawrence, Allen, Ray, Kim Burningham, and Margaret Bird, are Republicans. What is more, our Republican Attorney General, Mark Shurtleff, has announced that a criminal docket might be opened to investigate the Lawrence bribery charge, and many believe that Hughes may be a co-conspirator in the Mark Walker bribery scandal and a subject of the grand jury proceeding recently instigated by two county attorneys, one a Republican, the other a Democrat. In the face of so much inculpation by fellow party members, it is no wonder that the Republican chair of the ethics Committee, Todd Kiser, closed the hearing by stating that he had seen exhibited, through days of evidence, a very “unstatesmanlike” exercise of enormous power by Hughes.

In addition to these adverse judgments by his Republican peers, the Democratic half of the committee membership found that there was clear and convincing evidence that Hughes was guilty of one count of bribery and two counts of extortion. On another charge, that Hughes had misused taxpayer monies, exercised undue influence with a government agency, and subverted the legislatively prescribed neutrality of that agency in a state-wide election, the Committee voted to absolve Hughes only because his Republican colleague, Senator Curtis Bramble, took the fall for him. Bramble testified that, although Hughes was in charge of the political organization which had perpetrated these wrongs, it was not Hughes, but Bramble, who had acted directly in relation to the agency involved. In other words, even though Hughes knew of the wrongdoing and was in a position to stop if not prevent it, he escaped conviction since he merely stood by, did nothing, and watched while Senator Bramble engaged in malfeasance on Hughes’s behalf. So much for “moral leadership.” (Indeed, the Republican leadership at the state legislature, notwithstanding some recent “noise” that they have “got religion” on ethics, isn’t rushing to bring charges against Bramble -- even though, while “falling on his sword” for Hughes at the ethics hearing, Bramble virtually admitted to conduct that is criminal, and, since then, has bragged on a talk radio program that he would repeat that conduct if occasion arises).

Hughes now claims that he was vindicated by the committee’s judgment that he engaged in conduct unbecoming a legislator. This claim could be Hughes showing off his mastery of overstatement. But it more likely reveals, once again, that his moral compass has a hard time finding true north. He stubbornly refuses to take responsibility for his own misconduct, blaming those who merely report his wrongdoing. He is willfully blind to the constitutional requirement that those who run for office must remain accountable to the body politic. Hughes is so far from these qualities of responsibility and accountability that, upon hearing that the ethics complaint had been filed, he went to the state capitol to “get a piece of” and “punch out” one of the legislators who had filed it. The Highway Patrol was called to prevent Hughes from physically harming a fellow legislator.

Under the present ethics procedures at the state capitol, a legislator may not be found guilty of misconduct unless there is “clear and convincing” evidence that he has been unethical. For the Republicans on the committee, that would seem to require a videotape of Hughes handing over a bag of cash to someone. But this is not the traditional standard by which those who are given power to be exercised in trust for the benefit of others have been or ought to be judged. Under this time-tested, yes, conservative standard, all fiduciaries, including legislators, once accused, have the burden of persuasion to show that their conduct has been proper, that their actions are above reproach and beyond suspicion. The public, in other words, should not have to worry, wonder, or debate whether their representative has been above-board in his dealings – since this would never occur, after all, if that representative had avoided even the appearance of impropriety. We respectfully submit that Rep. Hughes, in his dealings, has not come within a country mile of meeting this standard. Indeed, the only thing “clear and convincing” about the Hughes case is that he was convicted, by a unanimous, bi-partisan vote, of conduct unbecoming a member of the people’s House. That finding is a vote of “no confidence,” and certainly is no “exoneration.” The public should echo this vote on Nov. 4th by replacing him.

Posted with permission by the authors.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Call to Action for the House Rules Committee

Many of you have probably already taken advantage of early voting like I have, but with the official election day drawing near I can't help but want to stand here at the podium a few more times. While some of the immediate voting decisions we all need to make revolve around candidates and propositions, the immediacy of some of these decisions also begs some visionary and long-term questions. What do we value, what do we want, what can and should we expect from government leaders?

During the 2008 Legislative session, HB 130 ( outlined a proposal for creating a State Ethics Commission. As an important and necessary call to action for the entire state, hope was high for some real change in legislative oversight. In reality, the bill was summarily dismissed by the House Rules Committee. No policy committee debate, no policy committee work, no progress. The bill was killed.

I can't overstate how much power the House Rules Committee has in the legislative process. In a nutshell, this committee serves as gatekeeper. Proposed bills are submitted to this committee where they are discussed and potentially assigned to an approriate policy committee for further debate, refinement, and progress. Of course, any bill can be defeated even if it is assigned to a policy committee, but at least it has a chance to be debated and reviewed in committee work. And, bills that make it to committee are also more easily brought to the public's attention. However, the House Rules Committee can also cause a bill to be "held" which is, in effect, an immediate death sentence for the held bill. The bill goes nowhere and potentially important change is at least another year in coming.

I realize this is a simplistic and brief review, but the point is that this committee has a responsibility and power that sometimes goes unnoticed and unchallenged by the public at large. With so much current dialogue regarding ethics and another legislative session on the horizon, I thought it would be important for me to take a look at who currently serves on this committee.

The 2008 House Rules Committee ( who reviewed and killed HB 130 calling for an independent State Ethics Commission is currently comprised of the following members:

Rep. Stephen H. Urquhart, Chair
Rep. Gregory H. Hughes, Vice Chair
Rep. Jackie Biskupski
Rep. James A. Dunnigan
Rep. Kevin S. Garn

Rep. Neal B. Hendrickson
Rep. Michael T. Morley
John L. Fellows, General Counsel
John Q. Cannon, Managing Policy Analyst
Stewart E. Smith, Pol Analyst/Spec Projects Mngr

Election results could, of course, change the makeup of this committee. Tuesday will tell.

For now, in my opinion, HB 130 was a call to action for the entire Utah political machine. Since it was "held" and went nowhere, and there will undoubtedly be another ethics reform bill submitted in the future, this post is a very personal call to action specifically for the House Rules Committee during the upcoming 2009 Legislative Session: assign the bill, let there be debate, scrutiny, questions, refinement, public input, and real progress towards objective ethics oversight!