Peg McEntee: When it comes to politics, keep the light shining
By Peg McEntee
First published Mar 16 2013 11:11AM
Without fail, a lot of work gets done in the final day or two of the Utah Legislature. This year, lawmakers made a broad step toward an independent investigation into Attorney General John Swallow.
It’s a good move, given Swallow’s alleged violations — hiding his business holdings, associations and paychecks — and a peculiar statute that said the attorney general’s office had the power to investigate the attorney general.
The sour smell of that got state Sen. Peter Knudson to draft a bill that would provide a special counsel to investigate purported violations of the Election Code and conflicts of interest. Final passage came late Thursday, the last day of the session, and went into effect immediately.
The legislation also could affect Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who is alleged to have tried to influence the outcome of a child abuse investigation on behalf of someone he knew personally.
The Alliance for a Better Utah, a watchdog and advocacy organization, got things rolling earlier this month when it filed a complaint with the lieutenant governor’s office requesting an investigation into Swallow’s possible violations of election laws. Those purported violations, of course, involved businessman Jeremy Johnson, now under federal indictment for multiple counts of fraud, money laundering and conspiracy.
Swallow allegedly concealed his interest in P-Solutions, which got $23,500 in payments for consulting work he said he did on a Nevada cement project for Johnson associate Richard Rawle. That money came from funds Johnson, founder of I-Works, paid to Rawle.
No form of government is immune from quiet deals, discreet handshakes and closed-door decisions. Republican legislators routinely hold private caucuses, which has caused serious angst among observers eager to see the process in action. Democrats, on the other hand, hold open caucuses.
But democracy requires transparency. We see that in the open debates in committees and on the Senate and House floors, and that’s good. It’s all the less-formal encounters that make watchdogs and average Utahns who pay attention to state politics uneasy about what trades and accommodations are being made, and why and with whom.
When I was a legislative reporter, the worst times came when lawmakers mysteriously left the floor or dodged into side rooms or, quite often, the restrooms.
What were they thinking in there? What deals were being made? And when would the rest of us know?
There’s little that’s more boring than sitting on an uncomfortable bench in the hall and waiting for some word, even some subtle indication, of what was cooking that day and when it would come out in the open.
Sure, some conversations must be quiet. There are subtle deals and promises and compromises to be made.
But when it comes to officeholders like Swallow, who are elected by the people, every ounce of information must be on the table and in conflict-of-interest disclosures available to everyone.
In fairness, most legislators, council members, executive officeholders and anyone else who’s hired by the people do share their applicable records.
The old saw remains true: Sunshine really is the best disinfectant.