After Swallow and Bell scandals, ethics legislation unveiled for executive branch

Posted at 9:28 PM, Feb 25, 2013
and last updated 2013-02-26 00:22:30-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- A bill dealing with ethics and the executive branch is expected to be unveiled on Utah's Capitol Hill.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, told FOX 13 he is proposing creating a five member commission to investigate any ethics complaints involving the five members of the executive branch. The commission would be comprised of a former judge, two staffers of the executive branch and two members of the general public. It is similar in design to a commission set up to investigate members of the legislative branch.

"I think this will give a forum for our citizens to be able to vet ethics complaints against our elected officials," Valentine said Monday.

The watchdog group Utahns for Ethical Government was skeptical of Valentine's bill, but applauded him for bringing it forward.

"The devil is in the details," said UEG's David Irvine. "If there is no code of ethics adopted in conjunction with this, then it really is toothless."

Irvine said the ethics commission already in place for the Utah State Legislature is lacking. He complained that it is too difficult for citizens to file a complaint and any investigation is shrouded in secrecy.

"There really is a loosey, goosey legislative code of ethics that hardly deserves the title, 'Code of Ethics,'" he said. "So it remains to be seen whether this effort means something or whether it's just window dressing."

Irvine said UEG was already planning a "test case" to challenge the effectiveness of the legislature's ethics commission. They were planning to complain about the "status" of a lawmaker within the body, but Irvine declined to say more.

The bill comes in the aftermath of a pair of scandals percolating at the state capitol. Both Utah Attorney General John Swallow and Lt. Governor Greg Bell are under investigation by the FBI in separate cases.

The attorney general is accused of soliciting funds from a St. George businessman to influence the outcome of a federal investigation. The lieutenant governor is accused of ordering an audit to influence a child abuse case in juvenile court.

While Senators have rushed to defend Lt. Governor Bell, they have not done the same for Swallow. Valentine told FOX 13 the situations are different -- Bell is not accused of doing anything for personal gain.

"For those of us who have worked with our lieutenant governor for so long, this is a very honest man," Valentine said. "He is one of those straight arrows who does not do things for personal benefit."

The senate has been briefed by attorneys on the impeachment process concerning Swallow, should it ever come to that. Valentine said he and his fellow senators feel the investigation should continue against the attorney general.