State senators on Friday were vouching for the honesty and character of Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, a former Senate colleague who now finds himself ensnared in a federal probe after intervening in a child-abuse investigation and pushing for an audit of the case.
“If I were to put it in transportation terms, I believe that Greg Bell is so straight, you could use him as a template to stripe the freeways with,” said Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who succeeded Bell. “I hope there’s no foundation to these allegations.”
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Bell was an “outstanding” senator and “was one of the top people as far as doing the right thing.”
The senators’ vocal backing of Bell echoes supportive comments Thursday from Gov. Gary Herbert, who called Bell “as honest as the day is long.”
It also presents a stark contrast to the lack of support received by new Attorney General John Swallow, who is also the target of a federal investigation for his involvement with a Utah businessman, who was under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, and for other campaign fundraising issues.
“We’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with Greg Bell,” said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. “We don’t have that same relationship with John Swallow.”
“There’s no money involved, there’s no financial [motive]. It’s a completely different situation,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. “Those two situations are entirely different.”
With two of Utah’s statewide officeholders the targets of federal investigations, lawmakers are moving after the fact to construct an ethics framework for elected officials who until now have been largely left to police themselves.
“We are consistently trying to respond and do things that would engender trust from the public,” said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. “It appears it may be time to address some things within the executive branch and with constitutional officers.”
In 2008, after a long and ugly fight over an ethics complaint filed against Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and with a tough ethics initiative petition being circulated, Utah lawmakers sought to overhaul their ethics rules and the system to adjudicate allegations of misbehavior.
The result was a tightening of gift rules and the creation of a five-member ethics commission to investigate and rule on allegations of ethical impropriety.
But the clampdown did nothing to touch the conduct of statewide elected officials — the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, auditor and treasurer.
Sen. John Valentine said the ethical black hole was immediately evident when allegations of Swallow’s conduct first made headlines last month. The Orem Republican said he began work on a bill that day to create the ethics panel.
“[The bill] is in response to the various problems we’ve seen today,” he said.
It would create a five-member commission, similar to the one that now polices the Legislature, to investigate ethical complaints in a secret setting and then issue a public report spelling out the wrongdoing or quietly vindicating the target.
Valentine said he has been in negotiations with the executive offices about the makeup of the commission, including who would hire the investigator and director for the commission, or if it would use the same staff as the legislative commission.
The ethics commission would have authority to hear complaints about any of the state’s five elected officials, but not rank-and-file state employees.
He said there is already a system in place for other state employees or political appointees who violate ethics rules — they can be reprimanded or fired.
Valentine said he hoped to have language of his bill finalized by Friday and release it publicly next week. It would not apply retroactively, meaning the commission would have no role in the inquiries into the conduct of Swallow or Bell.
Weiler released a separate bill Thursday in response to the Swallow scandal, seeking to require political appointees to play by the same rules as career employees when it comes to getting paid for work outside of their full-time state jobs.
Several bills have also been proposed that would cap campaign contributions at $10,000 from an individual in statewide races.
The ethics bills will likely go to a committee hearing next week.