Former Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens is returning to the state Capitol — this time as the chief lobbyist for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The church announced Friday that Stephens is the new Director of Community and Government Relations in its Public Affairs Department.
“Marty is serving on a volunteer basis, and will represent the church as a lobbyist,” said church spokesman Doug Andersen.
Stephens is replacing John Q. Cannon, who recently was hired as head the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, the legal and research arm of the Legislature. Cannon had previously worked for that state agency before becoming a church lobbyist.
Andersen said, “Marty has earned a reputation for his ability to work with people who represent a variety of positions and political ideologies, and is respected for his ability to counsel with others and to treat all with professionalism and kindness.”
Stephens was elected House Speaker in 1998 and served in that role until 2004, when he ran unsuccessfully for governor. He was the only House speaker in Utah history to be elected to three terms.
During the gubernatorial campaign in 2004, Stephens became close to a rival Republican candidate, Merit Medical founder and CEO Fred Lampropoulos, and later went to work for Merit, retiring in 2015.
During his legislative career, Stephens also served as the House majority leader and chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee. He also had a term as president of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
For his sponsorship of legislation to allow better access to government records, Stephens was once awarded the Roy B. Gibson Freedom of Information Award by the Utah Society of Professional Journalists.
A former House speaker now acting as the top church lobbyist could further fan long-time controversy about whether the Mormon church has too many close ties and too much pull in the Legislature, where close to 90 percent of members are Mormon.
For example, former Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, last month wrote a long Facebook post defending and praising Cannon’s appointment to a top legislative post in face of criticism of him coming straight from a perch as church lobbyist. But in the same post, Urquhart assailed what he called “secretive,” “puppet-string” lobbying by the church.
He said such lobbying was used first to fight gay-rights bills that he pushed, and later to enact them.
Urquhart complained that the Mormon church “is seemingly incapable of finding the front door and walking through it. It doesn’t bother lobbying rank-and-file members or going on record in committee meetings like other political participants do; instead, it whispers to a few members of Republican leadership, and things magically happen.”
Urquhart’s comments were not the first time that former legislators have created a stir about LDS lobbying.
For example in 2015, former Rep. Carl Wimmer — who left the LDS Church to become an evangelical Christian — accused the church of bullying Mormon lawmakers on such controversial topics as illegal immigration, alcohol and gay rights.
The former Herriman Republican, an unsuccessful candidate for Congress, compared meetings between Mormon church lobbyists and select lawmakers to LDS priesthood interviews and alleged that his local church leader contacted him directly to vote for a bill favored by the faith.
A couple of former legislators backed Wimmer’s claims. Far larger groups of Mormon lawmakers said they never experienced the kind of heavy-handed tactics that Wimmer described.
Stephens could not be reached immediately for comment.