Ethics bills advance without caps on Utah campaign donations
Utah Legislature • Many changes were prompted by ex-A.G. John Swallow scandal.
Published: March 8, 2014 01:43PM
Updated: March 8, 2014 10:37PM

Legislators are advancing a long list of ethics reforms growing out of the scandals that toppled Attorney General John Swallow, but one key reform long sought by good-government groups has quietly faded away.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, had proposed finally putting limits on campaign donations, as do most states and the federal government. But he has abandoned that quest for the year.

Meanwhile, the Senate Business and Labor Committee, which Bramble leads, on Friday moved out a long list of other reforms.

Most are in HB394, already passed by the House and sponsored by Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, who headed the special committee that investigated Swallow.

“This bill comes from our work on the House Special Investigative Committee. As we went through the process, we kept a list of things we thought we should take a look at,” Dunnigan said.

For example, the committee found that Swallow sometimes reported large sums paid to political consultants, but did not disclose what kind of work they were doing or what the money actually paid for. It was seen as a way to subvert the intent of campaign-spending disclosure.

Dunnigan said his bill would require, for example, that if a candidate reports paying a consultant $50,000, the candidate needs to list how that was spent — such as how much went to buy ads, how much was spent on polling, etc.

Under current law, allowing reporting of a lump sum to a consultant, “There is no transparency on what that money went for,” Dunnigan said. “The public doesn’t have a clue where that money went.”

Similarly, candidates would no longer be able to report simply how much went to pay a credit-card company without itemizing how that money was spent and to whom. Swallow was accused of funneling money in hard-to-trace ways to attack his political opponents and those of his allies.

Also, the bill would put an end to some candidates listing donations coming through payment services, such as Paypal, without listing the actual donors.

On conflict-of-interest forms, candidates would also need to show all business partnerships and positions they had for a year before they filed for office. Swallow had transferred several companies into his wife’s name on the day he filed for office, thus sidestepping disclosure of conflicts.

The committee passed that bill on a 5-0 vote, and sent it to the full Senate for final consideration.

Meanwhile, the committee combined and passed two other ethics bills Friday. Bramble’s proposal to impose donation limits was not part of the legislation.

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, made it through a committee this week, but similar proposals have failed in recent years.

Utah has no such limits, and it is not unusual for individuals or corporations to donate $50,000 or more to a candidate. Bramble’s SB146 had proposed a $5,000 limit per two-year election cycle. Critics of the current system argue limits help prevent candidates from becoming too beholden to a donor.

Elements of SB146 were combined into HB246, sponsored by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City.

One element surviving from Bramble’s bill is that in the last 30 days before an election, candidates would need to disclose donations online within three days of receiving them instead of the usual month. As the law stands now, he noted, many last-minute donations are revealed only after an election.

Also, surviving from Bramble’s bill is a provision to require lobbyists to identify who they are working for when they talk to public officials. He said he may amend it to require them to wear identification badges at the Legislature.

Meanwhile, Hall’s HB246 still contains its original provision to impose a penalty for late online disclosure of donations within 30 days of receipt, creating a fine amounting to the greater of $50 or 15 percent of the non-disclosed donation.

Hall said the election office’s only recourse now is to “ask nicely” for timely disclosure, with no mechanism to punish violators. The bill would also require posting online a list of any violations.

ldavidson@sltrib.com