Ethics Commission should make it easier for Utahns to complain, Editorial Board writes

Utahns with concerns about government officials in executive branch should have somewhere to go.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Speaker Becky Lockhart and Rep. James Dunnigan speak about Attorney General John Swallow's resignation, Thursday November 21, 2013 in Salt Lake City.

In Douglas Adams’s classic sci-fi satire “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” poor Arthur Dent was about to have his house knocked down to make way for a new highway bypass - because, well, you have to build bypasses. The official in charge of the demolition crew explained that it was all being done legally and with proper public notice.

Notice? Well, yes, Arthur said.

“It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

Arthur Dent never found himself trying to file a complaint with the Utah Independent Executive Branch Ethics Commission. A body so independent that it barely exists.

Anyone who was moved to make an ethics complaint against our five statewide elected officials -- the governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the state auditor or the state treasurer -- over the 10 years of its existence would have been hard-pressed to know the commission even existed, much less how to initiate an action.

As The Salt Lake Tribune reported in January, and then again last week, the five-member commission that is charged with looking into complaints about the behavior of Utah’s Big Five has had hardly any cases, very little budget, long-standing vacancies and, until recently, a disconnected telephone number.

The latter of those problems now has been cured, in that it now has no telephone number at all.

The organization began with great promise.

The Republican supermajority of the Utah Legislature created the commission in response to scandals involving the then-recently resigned Attorney General John Swallow and his predecessor and mentor, Mark Shurtleff. Both were caught up in pay-for-play allegations that led to criminal charges against both - though both cases later collapsed.

The legislative GOP, led by House Speaker Becky Lockhart and a special committee chaired by Rep. James Dunnigan, devoted a lot of time and energy to taking the matter seriously and produced a report damning the A.G.’s office for having “hung a veritable ‘for sale’ sign” on its door.

One finding of the special committee was that people who knew what was going on in the attorney general’s office had nowhere to go with their concerns until the House appointed its special committee, at which time they were eager to unburden themselves.

“Over a period of months,” the committee wrote, “many courageous current and former employees of the Office affirmatively sought out the Committee’s investigators, and welcomed them in their homes, to share their deep anger and frustration about what occurred during Mr. Swallow’s tenure. Not infrequently, these individuals became highly emotional when describing what they had seen. These loyal public servants had known for years that what was happening in the Office was wrong, yet they felt powerless to stop the wrongdoing because it came directly from the top.”

Any separation-of-powers democracy such as ours should always offer the opportunity for legislative oversight of the executive. But it can be difficult when one group of elected officials is examining another. Partisan politics will inevitably be dragged into the matter, whether it turns out to be members of one party investigating members of the other party - which almost never happens in Utah - or lawmakers expected to keep the public’s trust while looking over the shoulder of their fellow Republicans.

Thus the creation of the independent commission. There ought to be a partisan-free zone where those who know, or have good reason to suspect, that the five top executive officers of the state are up to no good to go with their knowledge and concerns.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. There are many hoops to jump through for those who might bring a complaint.

A case couldn’t be brought anonymously. It couldn’t come within so many days of a primary or general election in which the suspected official was running. Those making the complaint had to have at least one co-signer and had to have “personal knowledge” of wrongdoing that would, if confirmed, constitute an impeachable offense.

No wonder nobody ever tried to call the commission’s phone number.

In January, moving to remedy an admittedly “inexcusable” oversight, Gov. Spencer Cox filled two of the three empty seats on the five-member commission, and the body announced that one of its old members had actually been reappointed, bringing the body to its full statutory complement. Though it still lacks a working phone number or a mailing address. (Its email address is ethics@utah.gov.)

There was a time when the Republican-dominated Legislature seemed to think this body had reason to exist, even though the targets of its investigations would almost always be Republicans. If they ever really meant that, it is time for lawmakers to revive the commission, make its rules less of an obstacle course and scare up the money for a devoted staff that will make the public aware of its existence and its address.

Politicians of all stripes should be clamoring for the commission to have real power. So should the voters.

Of course, if that never happens, or even if it does, there’s always The Salt Lake Tribune tipline.