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Utah's corrupted beehive

Published June 8, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

No matter how you stack it, the last few years have been troubling for anyone who cares about ethics in Utah government.

Today, there is Attorney General John Swallow and allegations of bribery, campaign disclosure violations and other misdeeds. There is his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff, and allegations of a pay-to-play attorney general's office.

Yesterday, there was Utah Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack's DUI, Rep. Mark Walker's campaign violations, and House Majority Leader Kevin Garn's hot-tub hush money.

Unfortunately, as new names are added to the list it becomes harder and harder to deny that a culture of political corruption is taking hold in Utah.

There are multiple causes. Our one-party political landscape takes some of the blame. Republican Utah no longer has any semblance of the checks and balances necessary for our party-based system to work properly. Partisan redistricting locks the imbalance in place and makes it worse, decade after decade.

Utah's ethics and campaign finance laws, which range from inadequate to nonexistent, are also part of the problem. Every year it becomes clearer that in our state, what may be legal is not synonymous with what is right.

But there is reason to fear that something deeper is also at work. The growth of official malfeasance has paralleled the rising prominence of hyper-conservative, anti-government political groups that are extreme even by Utah's historical standards. They espouse a political philosophy that goes far beyond the longstanding conservative maxim that the best government is a small government. They engender an attitude of undisguised disgust for virtually everything that government does, and encourage citizens to view government with disdain.

In this toxic political context, where government is viewed as contemptible, it is not surprising that some elected officials would forget the bedrock principles that make democracies function. That government service is an honor. That self-interest must always take a back seat to civic responsibility. That if you're about to do something you wouldn't want your parents to read about on the front page, you should probably think twice.

My thesis is that by engendering such intense animosity and disrespect toward government, today's caustic conservatism is eroding the core values that democracy requires to work, and that this erosion is a significant cause of the ethical morass that we are now witnessing.

Without question, ethical breaches are not limited to the anti-government set. But in Utah that's where they are festering today, and the infection seems to be spreading.

In contrast, Utah moderates of both parties — who tend to approach government service with appropriate amounts of respect and humility — generally have not made headlines for ethical blunders. Can anyone imagine Salt Lake County's former Democratic mayor, Peter Corroon, being accused of bribery? Or former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman? Or Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson? It would be so out of character and border on the comical.

The point is not that conservatives are inherently unethical. Not at all. But today's brand of extreme anti-government conservatism is jeopardizing some very important civic norms — with highly undesirable results. It's a problem that all Utahns should be concerned about, liberals and conservatives alike.

Paul Svendsen is a recovering attorney who works as a consultant and real estate developer in Salt Lake City.