Law student Jake Lee was excited when his former boss, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, offered to take him and a guest to Tuesday’s Utah Jazz game against the Los Angeles Lakers. He was downright ecstatic to find the tickets were for team owner Gail Miller’s front-row floor seats.
“I died and went to Jazz heaven,” he posted on Twitter and Facebook, with a selfie of him there with Cox, Cox’s wife and Lee’s father — Utah Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee.
It created a stir on some social media since state rules normally ban officials from accepting expensive gifts or favors. And NBA.com lists some nearby second-row seats — and not in the center section — reselling for Thursday’s upcoming home game against the Los Angeles Clippers for $945 each. The four seats used by the Coxes and Lees were better.
A spokesman for Justice Lee said the gift ban didn’t apply in his case because his ticket technically came from his son, and the ban doesn’t apply to family members.
A spokesman for Cox said gift bans for executive branch officials make exceptions for close friends — which Cox considers Miller to be — but to be safe, he agreed beforehand to pay the Jazz the value it puts on the tickets.
“I don’t know that he has the value yet,” said Kirsten Rappleye, Cox’s chief of staff. “He is expecting to get it and send a check.”
While Rappleye said Cox believes he wasn’t required to pay for the tickets because he and his wife “are friends with Gail Miller,” he decided to be safe and follow what Gov. Gary Herbert has done for years when he uses the same seats, and has “the Jazz value it and then pay them back.”
An 2014 executive order signed by Herbert and Cox bans executive branch officials from “accepting a gift or other compensation, either directly or indirectly, that might be intended to influence or reward the individual in the performance of official state business.”
It provides an exemption for “gifts from personal friends where it is clear that the gift is motivated by personal friendship and not by the employee’s position with the state.”
Miller has some business before the state. For example, she is one of the leaders of Count My Vote, which is attempting to put an initiative on the ballot to cement in place the election law that allows candidates to qualify for the ballot either by collecting signatures or through the caucus-convention system.
Cox, as the state’s top election official, will be in charge of verifying whether Count My Vote obtains the 113,000 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. Also, the election law that Count My vote seeks to bolster was previously upheld by the Utah Supreme Court, where Justice Lee serves.
For his part, Justice Lee — the brother of Utah Sen. Mike Lee — says he broke no judicial ethics rules, and that he checked with a court attorney before the game to make sure.
Utah’s Code of Judicial Conduct says a “judge shall not accept any gifts, loans, bequests, benefits, or other things of value, if acceptance is prohibited by law or would appear to a reasonable person to undermine the judge’s independence, integrity, or impartiality.”
It adds in comments that “gift-giving between friends and relatives is a common occurrence, and ordinarily does not create an appearance of impropriety or cause reasonable persons to believe that the judge’s independence, integrity, or impartiality has been compromised.”
Geoffrey Fattah, communications director for Utah State Courts, explained that Lee was invited to the game by his son — and that he “has been assured by our courts” ethics counsel that accepting the tickets was appropriate.
“His son was told by the lieutenant governor that he could invite anyone he wanted to. Initially, Justice Lee’s son was going to take his wife along with him, but she couldn’t make it. So he decided to invite his dad to come along with him,” Fattah said.
“In past ethical opinions, it has been supported that judges can accept invitations from friends and family to attend events,” he said.
“Justice Lee did know that the seats were Gail Miller’s seats. But before he was invited, he wanted to make sure that the lieutenant governor wasn’t proffering them to him directly. So he asked his son, and his son said that the lieutenant governor gave him the tickets and he was free to invite whomever he wanted to,” he said.
Chase Thomas, counsel for the ethics watchdog Alliance for a Better Utah, said it appears to him that Cox and Justice Lee technically complied with ethics rules.
“But we believe government officials should behave in ways so that they don’t have to explain their behavior,” and be more mindful of appearances that may give the wrong impression, he said.