Monday, February 11, 2008

Conflicts of Interest Rampant, another problem we must resolve.

One in 4 bills poses a conflict
Jury still out on whether Capitol 'specialties' present a problem
Copyright 2008 Deseret Morning News
By Lee Davidson and Bob Bernick Jr.Deseret Morning News
Published: Sunday, Feb. 10, 2008 12:21 a.m. MST
23 comments
One of every four bills introduced in the current Legislature creates an apparent conflict of interest for sponsors, a Deseret Morning News review shows.
That is not too surprising since Utah's 104 lawmakers work only part time in the Legislature, but full time as lawyers, teachers, dentists, Realtors, developers and at other jobs. Many push bills in areas of their expertise — considered one of the pluses of a citizen lawmaking body. While that can take advantage of their knowledge, it can also make them power brokers and leaders in arcane areas of the law, or help their professions.
Take, for example, Rep. Lorie Fowlke, R-Orem, one of two members who had all the bills they introduced this year in an area where they work in their private lives. She is an attorney specializing in family law, and her bills ranged from protective order amendments to joint custody amendments and stalking amendments.
"What is scary is when you have people voting" on bills "they really know nothing about," she said. But Fowlke says that rarely happens in the Utah Legislature, where people from different backgrounds help each other understand issues in their areas of expertise.
The individual expertise that 104 legislators can bring to lawmaking is invaluable, she said. "It is really helpful that we have so many different professions up here" to lend their wisdom to lawmaking.
She says she saw a need for better law in her area of family legal issues. "My emphasis has always been to clarify the law," Fowlke said. "Good attorneys follow the law. If you agree on the law, then you may (only) go to court over the facts."
But others see conflicts as problems. Claire Geddes, who has watched the Legislature for years as a public advocate, says conflicts are "the number one ethical problem at the Legislature — and legislators just don't take it seriously at all."
Geddes says votes there rarely break along party lines, and, "Instead, the issues break out along self-interest lines. It is infamous that they pass bills that help their own industries," she said. "The public loses big-time, and everyone just acts like it is OK because we have a part-time Legislature. It is not OK."
The Deseret Morning News compared all bills introduced in the 2008 session with legislators' conflict of interest disclosure statements and their known hobbies, jobs or former jobs and the jobs and financial interests of their spouses and close family members.
Of 799 substantive bills introduced this session, 210 created apparent conflicts of interest for the sponsors — or 26 percent of them. A similar review last year yielded almost identical findings, with 25 percent of all 2007 bills creating conflicts for sponsors.
Conflicts are so common this year that 71 of the 104 legislators, or two of every three, introduced bills that created such apparent conflicts. (A list of how many conflicts were identified for each member can be found at the PDF graphic link at right.)
Again, conflicts are not necessarily bad. But some of the more interesting ones noticed during the News review include:
• Rep. Jon Greiner, R-Ogden, is also the Ogden police chief. He introduced nine bills dealing with law enforcement. One would allow police chiefs, such as himself, to declare "no-gang zones." Known gang members could be arrested if they refuse to leave such areas or return to them within eight hours.
• Rep. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, is an orthodontist. He introduced the Dentist and Dental Hygienist Practice Act amendments, and medical insurance amendments.
• Rep. Patrick Painter, R-Nephi, a car dealer, introduced motor vehicle amendments.
• Sen. Dan Eastman, R-Bountiful, a former car dealer, introduced a bill about the Motor Vehicle Safety Inspection Advisory Council.
• Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, a foundation director for Davis School District, introduced a bill changing accounting and reporting requirements by such school foundations.
• Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, works for Sterling Mortgage. He introduced a mortgage fraud bill.
Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, a real estate broker, introduced four bills dealing with real estate law.
-Plus he has sponsored and cosponsored "Deferred taxation with 6% interest" legislation both last year and this year at the behest of the Realtor Association. A Bill on subdivisions which makes it easier to end run planning commissions. And now we learn he voted for HB 466, which gives all authority for creating Towns to developers at expense of citizen's private property rights. MM
• Rep. Richard Greenwood, R-Roy, former Utah Highway Patrol colonel, introduced a bill to make not wearing a seat belt a primary offense for which officers can pull over drivers, and introduced amendments to the "not-a-drop" DUI program.
• Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, is president of the Concealed Weapon Permit Holders Association. He introduced firearm amendments that would not require concealment of the firearm on a person who has a concealed weapons permit.
• Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, owns an insurance agency and introduced eight separate bills dealing with insurance issues. Over the years he has become the "go-to guy" on insurance matters.
"The (state) Insurance Department came to me this year and asked if I would carry some of these complicated matters for them," Dunnigan said, adding that he wanted the department to find someone else.
"But they asked who else could they get to explain this stuff" to legislators who know little about the technical aspects of insurance. "They asked, I agreed."
The Legislature deals with possible conflicts of interest by requiring lawmakers to file written declarations listing where they may have potential financial conflicts. Those declarations can be found at www.le.state.ut.us. Legislators can also verbally declare a conflict when they vote in committee or on their chamber floors.
Still, some legislators who are retired from their life-long professions list "none" for potential conflicts on their reports, even though they likely are drawing retirement checks from somewhere. And it is common practice for attorney/legislators to refuse to name their law clients, citing attorney/client privilege.
Also, Utah is one of the few states where legislators are required to vote if they are present even on bills where they have clear conflicts of interest. That has resulted in some odd legislative behavior.
In the 1980s before the Capitol was remodeled, the House area had a single woman's restroom behind the chambers. On one particularly tough vote, a female legislator locked herself in there, refusing to come out. The House clerk found a key, unlocked the door and the lawmaker was forced to vote.
Another legislator once hid behind the House kitchen door. A third used to visit the governor's office when she did not want to vote.
Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, started work on a bill last year to allow legislators to vote present, and not yes or no, when conflicts arose. But it would require the approval of the body's top three officers. However, he abandoned that effort.
Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said the effort was dropped because "there was no clear demarcation we could identify when you have a direct pecuniary interest."
For example, he said, should a teacher or a person on the board of a charter school vote for the education budget? Valentine said Bramble "found he could not come up with a line that was clear enough demarcation."
How about "I have divided loyalties on this issue and therefore I recuse himself." What is so difficult about that? How about an independent ethics commission since the whimps on the legislative version have never so much as investigated nor censored any of their "club". MM
Conflicts of interest received extra attention in the past year when Reps. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, and Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, had conflicts with potential construction of a nuclear power plant in the state.
They are members of or chair House committees that deal directly with nuclear energy. Tilton is an energy consultant who is looking into possibly building a nuclear power plant in Utah, while Noel heads a local water company that would sell the proposed plant $1 million of water each year.
Last summer, neither man publicly declared a conflict of interest during hearings on nuclear power until after their involvement was publicized by the media, with each saying they did not believe their private jobs were financial conflicts in that instance.
Contributing: Nicole Warburton
E-mail: lee@desnews.com; bbjr@desnews.com
Read all 23 comments
Recent comments
Utah native: I think you are a little naive as to how "efficient...
Reader Feb. 10, 2008 at 8:27 p.m.
Utah native: I can blow your argument sky high in just two words:...
Utah resident Feb. 10, 2008 at 8:12 p.m.
Actually, Utah's legislators have a better record of keeping...
2-cents worth Feb. 10, 2008 at 6:39 p.m.
Add your comment

3 comments:

ozboy said...

The following was posted on the Weber County Forum:


Once again the DNews puts its finger on a major problem with the annual clown Fest - AKA Utah State Legislature.

This time the DNews points out that 26% of the "substantive" bills introduced this year pose conflict of interests for their sponsors.

I found of particular interest the following from that article:

"Of 799 substantive bills introduced this session, 210 created apparent conflicts of interest for the sponsors"

The immediate question that I had was: There were about 1200 bills introduced, does this mean that 400 of them were not "substantive"? (ie - most of the nonsense morons like Chris Butters puts forth). Does this mean that if you add the 210 bills that have conflicts to the 400 that are not "substantive" you will have 600 of the 1200 bills that our Legislative clowns submitted are flawed? Is fully half of what these Bozo's do BS?

Smeagle said...

Smeagle | 11:55 p.m. Feb. 10, 2008
I suggest that each of you do what I do after each election: go to the legislative web site and read each of the 104 legislator's biographies yourselves (there are a few who refuse to submit a biography), then tally it up. Hardly representative of the rest of us: a majority are in the business of real estate (including title and escrow), insurance, banking, or financial planning. Then there are the ones who push vouchers who operate private schools. Most of the old timers with conflicts of interest gloss it over with self-aggrandizing comments about their service to the Boy Scouts or other such non-pertinent pap.

There may be only 25% with an easily identified conflict of interest, but there are not truly 25% who are worth keeping in office. Whatever district you are in, please consider voting for the incumbent's opponent. Help shake the place up. Teach them that their offices are not entitlements.

Enuff! said...

amen! Vote the conflicted bums out!