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Ethics laws

Published January 30, 2013 5:04 pm

So far, the bills are pretty weak
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In the wake of the scandal involving Utah Attorney General John Swallow, accused of arranging a bribe of a U.S. senator to help a troubled businessman avoid a Federal Trade Commission investigation, several state lawmakers have announced a desire to re-write state ethics laws. Sadly, though, some of the first attempts out of the box do little to improve the situation.

And one bill, which makes it easier to accept anonymous donations, and easier to launder the money so received, is a clear step in the wrong direction.

HB38, by Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, passed out of committee Monday. It would raise the limit for anonymous campaign donations from the current $50 to $100. Current law is silent on what a campaign can do with anonymous donations of more than the limit. Truly anonymous gifts can't, by definition, be returned to their donor. So the bill would allow campaigns to give any excess money received in that way to charity or to a state or local government general fund.

There's not a lot of money that meets that definition flying around these days. In the last election cycle, excess anonymous gifts totaled only $8,813. Still, the ability of a candidate for public office to make him or herself look good by giving money to taxpayers or to charity remains a benefit for the candidate, and a way for those anonymous donors to influence those candidates.

Anonymous political donations should be banned outright. Such gifts allow one person, lobby, company, family or interest group to turn over several gifts of $100 each, and keep their identity hidden from the voting public.

It is like the part of the play "A Man for All Seasons," when the prosecutor who was trying to railroad Sir Thomas More accused him of passing along to a pesky job-seeker an expensive cup More had been given by a petitioner. The sycophant did not take kindly to the prosecutor's description of the event: "In other words, the moment Thomas knew the cup was a bribe, he dropped it into the nearest gutter."

Another bill, motivated by the use of so-called "push polls," which claim to ask for voters' opinions while actually bad-mouthing a candidate or party, would require all political polls to tell the participant — at the end — who paid for the poll. A good idea, probably, except for those who hang up on the pollster before they get to that point.

Another bill would restore the ability of unaffiliated voters to join a party at the polling place and vote in a primary election. Clearly, that will help more people participate.

But, without some real limits on campaign donations, all the other so-called ethics bills accomplish little.