The cases that have besmirched, if only temporarily, the names of Lt. Gov. Greg Bell and Attorney General John Swallow have drawn very different reactions from Utah’s political leadership. But the circumstances of both, as far as they are known, show a need for a more visible and aggressive system of setting ethical boundaries and probing charges of ethical violations.
Due to his long service in government, including many years as a well-regarded member of the state Senate, news that Bell is being investigated by a local prosecutor — and the FBI — has so far elicited more sorrow than anger.
It also matters that what Bell is suspected of doing, improperly siccing two state auditors on the Division of Child and Family Services in response to a citizen’s complaint, seems to be something from which Bell would gain nothing — at least, nothing financial.
That is not the case with accusations that have dogged Swallow since the first week of his tenure. There, the charge is that Swallow was pulling strings — up to, if not including, a plot to bribe a federal official — for the benefit of an indicted businessman. A businessman who had been a particularly generous donor to the political campaigns of Swallow’s political mentor, former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
The high prominence of alleged filthy lucre in the Swallow case means it seems to be much more serious. But both cases have the same root: A public official allegedly bends or breaks the rules to do a favor for a friend.
Bell is open about having ordered the DCFS audit. He says concerns brought to him by a friend concerned about a specific case were serious and didn’t match the explanation he was given by the department. All he wanted, Bell says, is the truth.
Unanswered is the question of whether ordering auditors from one executive branch department to scrutinize the doings of another is in the portfolio of the lieutenant governor. And, if it is, whether it is proper for any public official to pull the levers of power on behalf of a friend, helping them get around the channels that are available to everyone else.
To their credit, several members of the Legislature are trying, within the small window of the legislative session and with the details of the Swallow and Bell cases still dribbling out, to improve the system. Ideas include limits on moonlighting by public officials, limits on campaign contributions and the creation of a panel to investigate alleged ethical violations by the state’s top elected officials.
These ideas should be pursued. Public officials need to know their limits. And so do those who seek their favor.
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