Recently, I wrote about Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes’ Qatari government-funded trip to watch the FIFA World Cup. But it turns out he wasn’t the only high-ranking Utah official who got to go on a junket.
Utah Senate President Stuart Adams made a similar trip, traveling to the international soccer tournament, along with two of his grandkids where they watched the U.S. play to a 0-0 tie against England just before Thanksgiving.
Mark Thomas, chief of staff to Adams, said the trip developed after Adams took a side trip to Qatar while he was on Gov. Spencer Cox’s trade mission to the Middle East in September.
According to a briefing on the meeting, Adams, representatives of the World Trade Center Utah and other Utah business leaders met with Sheikha Hind bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, sister of Qatar’s Emir and CEO of the Qatar Foundation. The foundation is designed to build Qatar’s workforce through an educational and cultural hub that partners with universities around the world.
During the meeting, they discussed potential student exchange programs and Adams followed up by inviting members of the royal family and their children to Utah. Thomas said they are hoping the visit can take place next month.
“The President and his family subsequently received an invitation from the Qatar government to attend the World Cup,” Thomas said. “He accepted and attended the United States match with two of his grandkids in November. Qatar arranged and paid for most [of] the accommodations.”
Thomas said that no Utah state or taxpayer funds were used.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Spencer Cox said neither the governor nor Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson were invited to the World Cup. A spokesperson for the Utah House said nobody in House leadership traveled to Qatar, while a Senate spokesman only said Adams had attended a match.
The revelations of the trips come as the World Cup has drawn increased scrutiny on Qatar’s exploitation of migrant workers to build stadiums and facilities for the global event and allegations of bribery in the bidding process for the tournament.
And over the past several days, the BBC reported, one European Union minister was expelled and six people were detained as part of an investigation into whether Qatar bribed EU officials to influence the selection of the World Cup. Two were later released, while Qatar and the officials have denied wrongdoing.
To be absolutely clear, this is not to suggest Qatar is bribing Reyes or Adams, and the amounts of money that allegedly changed hands in the European bid scandal dwarf the value of Utahns’ trips.
But the junket to Qatar is a generous gift, nonetheless. Airfare from Salt Lake to Qatar generally runs a few thousand dollars per ticket, while the hotel and tickets to the match would cost several hundred dollars more for each.
Now you may be wondering: Doesn’t state law put some kind of limits on these kinds of gifts? The answer is: Not really.
Utah’s ethics laws generally only prohibit gifts to public officials if they are given by registered lobbyists; if the gift would impair the official’s ability to do his or her job impartially; if it is given as a reward for some official action taken or if it is intended to influence a future action.
In Reyes’ case, his campaign consultant, Alan Crooks, said Reyes’ getaway was a gesture of gratitude for advice Reyes gave to Qatar officials about how to combat human trafficking in the run-up to the World Cup. Crooks also said the attorney general paid for his wife’s travel.
And while Adams and the Utah officials came away with plans on how to build relationships with the Qatar Foundation and other entities, they would not rise to the level of an official action.
In other words, unless you’re a lobbyist or are pretty clearly attempting to bribe an official, pretty much anything goes in Utah.
That doesn’t mean it should.
Even if the trips pass legal muster, I think it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of most voters to see elected officials taking thousands of dollars in freebies and junkets — particularly from a foreign government with Qatar’s dubious human rights record — solely because they hold public office.
“It’s a question of public trust: How are these officials taking these trips paid for by a foreign government acting in the best interests of Utahns?” asked Chase Thomas, executive director of the Alliance For A Better Utah. “Or is it just them receiving lavish personal favors because of their positions of influence? And what type of influence or favor is Qatar hoping to curry with these Utah officials such that they’re willing to spend all this money, and why?
“It raises a lot of questions that don’t smell good, and I think if the public has to start asking these types of questions about what our government officials are doing, then perhaps it wasn’t the best decision, even if it wasn’t illegal,” he said.
And he’s right. On one level, maybe we can’t blame these guys for jumping at the chance to jet halfway around the world for a free trip to the planet’s biggest sporting event.
But it’s also not unreasonable to expect a little higher standards of ethics and integrity from our elected representatives — even if they frequently let us down.