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Op-ed: System that created Shurtleff/Swallow still here

By Maryann Martindale

First Published Jul 25 2014 05:02 pm • Last Updated Jul 25 2014 05:02 pm

In the wake of Swallow and Shurtleff’s arrests, the attention in most state media outlets has quickly, and unfortunately, pivoted from reporting on systemic problems to suggesting that, perhaps, the problems are not systemic but are, in fact, merely a reflection of a few bad apples.

One story in the Tribune ("Swallow-Shurtleff charges: a black eye and silver lining," July 20) went so far as to suggest that Swallow’s and Shurtleff’s arrests prove the system works. Perhaps.

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More likely is that the case demonstrates not that the gears of justice eventually resolve themselves, but that the gears of justice grind too slowly. Thirteen years of unethical attorneys general is 13 years too many. The gears of justice are rusty.

In fact, electoral policy in Utah hasn’t changed much since the first mechanical gears were installed in motor vehicles at the turn of the last century. And even much of Progressive Era policy of the time, such as robust citizen initiative opportunities, have been aggressively curtailed. The gears of justice need an update.

And what would that update look like?

First, an independent ethics commission should be established with the ability to efficiently and timely investigate complaints. The Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Democracy recommended several years ago that an Elections and Lobbying Review Commission be created. The idea should be expanded to include a statewide ethics commission, similar to the idea that has so far only been pushed aggressively by Charles Stormont, the current Democratic nominee for attorney general.

Second, the Lt. Governor’s staff should be empowered to, and capable of, quickly investigating allegations of campaign finance violations — a power given to that office by the Legislature — without conducting expensive bid processes to hire counsel who can then investigate and recommend prosecution.

Third, campaign finance reforms. There are those that say campaign finance rules only make it harder for good people to run for office. I see it differently: It prevents opportunities for otherwise good people to succumb to the seduction of unlimited amounts of money. Think of it as avoiding the very appearance of evil. Aside from Rep. Kraig Powell, the lone outlying Republican calling for campaign finance reform, the prevailing party is loathe to limit their own ability to solicit unlimited donations. Fifty-thousand-dollar campaign donations are becoming routine.

Most candidates, like most people, are generally good. If you believe, as I do, that humans are decent by their very nature, it is easy to see that an unregulated system, one that allows unlimited campaign contributions, can have a corrupting influence on otherwise moral human beings.

The establishment has been quick to call out the misdeeds of a few bad apples, to affirm that the system works, and thus to quickly move on without ever having to enact substantive changes. Such an approach is shortsighted. The system itself created the opportunities for actors like Swallow and Shurtleff to severely take advantage of it. We should learn from their fall.

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In doing so, we should avoid thinking of Swallow and Shurtleff as bad apples in a system that otherwise works. Swallow and Shurtleff are people just like you and me: not particularly bad, not particularly good. An unregulated system allowed both of them to seriously abuse the trust of the people of Utah, a crime that arguably outweighs, in importance, the technical charges that have been levied against them. Legislators should create, and make enforceable, the checks and balances necessary to prevent apples of any kind from turning rotten.

Maryann Martindale is executive director of Alliance for a Better UTAH.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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