SALT LAKE CITY -- With two elected officials of the executive branch facing federal investigations, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, is introducing legislation that would create an independent ethics commission for Utah's five statewide elected officials.
Valentine first looked into creating the commission after news broke that Attorney General John Swallow allegedly played a role in a plan to payoff Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, to help a client of Swallow avoid a federal lawsuit. As he studied it out he found there was no mechanism in state law to allow for the public to submit a claim of questionable behavior about an elected official in the executive branch and have it investigated in a professional way.
"When the allegations first came out I recognized that we had a problem in our process that there was no place to do independent investigations of the five constitutional elected officials," Valentine said.
Under Valentine's proposal an independent commission would have subpoena power so it can look into the matter privately. The commission would operate much like past ethics commissions created by the Legislature in that if the complaint filed with the commission is found to have merit the whole investigation will be made public. If the complaint is determined to be erroneous then the investigation remains private, keeping the elected official's reputation intact.
An independent ethics commission is in place to investigate complaints made against legislators, but Valentine said researchers have decided that the separation of powers between the different branches of government would not allow for the same commission to investigate both branches. He now is huddling with members of the executive branch to gain their input on what an independent commission that investigates complaints about the governor, lt. governor, auditor, attorney general and treasurer should look like.
One thing that is certain is the commission would not be able to look into the current investigations involving Swallow or the investigations looking into Lt. Gov. Greg Bell's involvement in a case in which he is alleged to have attempted to influence the outcome of a child abuse investigation for someone he knew personally.
"We anticipate also that we will not go back retrospectively," Valentine said. "We are not trying to affect investigations that are going on at this time."
If his plan were to pass in the Legislature Valentine said the commission would be created on the effective date of the bill, which would be May 14. From that time forward the commission could look into new complaints or allegations but not delve into old ones. Valentine said he didn't want to create a commission to look back at the actions of former governors.
Valentine's proposal has support in both the House and Senate. Both Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, and House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, listed addressing ethics in the executive branch as a priority for the Legislature to address before the session ends on March 14. Lockhart noted that since Valentine has taken the lead on this legislation, she does not anticipate any House members drafting legislation to deal with ethics investigations of the executive branch.