Who pays the costs of ethics complaints?

Published November 27, 2009 6:56 pm
Fees » Some worry the initiative would line attorneys' wallets
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Opponents of an embattled ethics initiative fear the measure could pad the pockets of private attorneys representing legislators accused of misconduct -- all on the taxpayers' dime.

"My concern is that any three people with an ax to grind could file an ethics complaint, which sets in motion a process that costs taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars," said Todd Weiler, an attorney and former Utah Republican Party vice chairman.

One paragraph of the proposed 2010 ballot measure, sponsored by Utahns for Ethical Government, requires the target of an ethics probe to choose outside counsel.

Funds allocated to the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel then would pay for "reasonable" legal fees -- regardless of acquittal or conviction.

"This is a huge red flag," Weiler said in opposing the grass-roots proposal.

Initiative backers need to gather 95,000 valid signatures by April 15 to land the issue on next November's ballot.

Some see Weiler's argument as more of a red herring than a red flag.

"This is a fear tactic," said David Irvine, an attorney who helped draft the ethics-reform measure. "Somebody's got to pay that freight. We think it makes sense to insulate legislators from having to go back to lobbyists to cover their defense."

Even if in-house legal counsel is used, taxpayers still would pick up the tab, Irvine argued.

"They're already conflicted 13 ways to Sunday and can't work both sides of the street," Irvine said of legislative staff attorneys caught in the bind of defending any of the state's 104 lawmakers while also obligated to uphold the Legislature's integrity.

The term "reasonable" is commonly written into contracts, Irvine said, an amount that is determined by the court if litigation occurs.

Stephen Owens, Utah State Bar president, voiced a mix of support and concern.

"Overall, I favor the provision," Owens said. "One ethics claim, even though frivolous, might sink me and my family."

However, Owens worried about the lack of a fee cap.

An ethics complaint filed in October 2008 against Rep. Greg Hughes led to three weeks of hearings and a $42,000 legal bill for the Draper Republican, even though the charges were dismissed.

Hughes' supporters held a fundraiser this summer to defray those costs.

"There are things you could do, after the fact," Owens said, "so it's not a blank check."

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Ethics initiative debate

Monday, 11:30 a.m., Weber State University's Wildcat Theater

Initiative details can be found online at http://www.utahethics.org

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