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Is it really about ethics reform?

September 29, 2009

ethicsOr is it about power and control? To listen to the folks promoting the citizen’s initiative for ethical government, anyone who does not swallow their proposed bill does not want to see ethical behavior. Using questions like “You want ethical legislators, don’t you“, they are out promoting new legislation with the promise that this will solve all the “ethical problems” our state faces. In fact, their proposed legislation – while it contains some good ideas – is a huge legislative shift away from the Utah Constitution and away from the power of the people by putting unlimited and unchecked power in the hands of the very few.

The arguments go something like this: “Support this bill or you are not for ethical government; you LIKE the good old boy network and you are part of the problem…. ”

In fact, many of the people who oppose this lengthy bill fight the good old boy network every chance they get – and do not want to see it replaced by the good new boy network. Opponents of the bill DO want ethical legislators and ethical lobbyists (hey – it’s not ALWAYS an oxymoron!) They do want more openness and more transparency. They want more legislators (and other elected officials) willing to lose for what they believe in instead of clinging to their win-at-all-costs mentality and selling our birthright for a mess of pottage, one spoonful at a time.

But no matter the spin, this bill is NOT a workable solution. Our Founding Fathers believed strongly in preventing as much as possible the aggregation of power in the hands of a few, knowing that it would lead to tyranny. This bill creates a commission of just 5 individuals, with an additional 5 (the sponsors of the bill) that have no oversight, no checks and no balances – and lots and lots of power. It gives itself rule-making authority and explicitly removes oversight. By taking away the ability to keep power in check, you pretty much guarantee an exponential increase in abuses of power. During a public hearing on this bill, one of the promoters of this proposed legislation said that “due process” was not necessary, nor was it “owed” to the legislators who voluntarily ran for elected office. She continued by saying that oversight or any ability to keep powers in check by the executive, legislative or judicial branches was also not necessary. She proclaimed this commission free from influence because of that lack of oversight, yet what that really means is 5 people have absolute power to punish any legislator they choose. Don’t like a bill? Find two buddies to file a complaint. Sitting in jail ’cause you broke a law? Get two of your inmate friends and file a complaint against the legislator(s) who passed that law you just broke. And by the way – those legislators don’t even have to still be in office – anything, anytime in the previous 6 years is just fine.

During the process of discovery, the legislator has no rights. None. Zippo. Nada. Remember – they don’t deserve “due process”, remember? This bill PREVENTS legislators from bringing evidence in their own defense during the commission’s complaint vetting process. The commission would have subpoena power, but an accused legislator can be blocked at this stage from presenting any information. Once it finally “goes to court” (gets presented in front of the commission), the legislator would then be able to defend him or herself. The commission then makes “recommendations” to the legislature, but at the same time posts the accusations on their website, to remain for 12 months, whether “guilty” or not.

According to an excellent, in-depth article in the Daily Herald:

Other questions involve the commission’s assumption of duties that have been constitutionally assigned to the legislative and judicial branches of government, including appropriating money and disciplining members of the Legislature, as well as granting five private initiative sponsors the power to dictate the pool of names from which the commission would be drawn if the Speaker of the House, Senate president and two minority leaders cannot unanimously agree. The proposal also gives those same five private citizens special access in the event a lawsuit is filed against the commission by allowing them to intervene in cases.

One of the primary promoters of this legislation – Janet Jenson – asserted in the public hearing in Provo last week that one could simply not understand this bill if one were not an attorney like she was. However, as someone who has a keen interest in legislation and the legislative process, I HAVE read the bill and would assert it’s not all that difficult to understand. Someone else who has read it is Dr. William Sederburg, former president of Utah Valley University and now Utah’s Commissioner of Higher Education. He said recently that he had initially been in favor of the ethics initiative as it was explained to him, but after reading it carefully found that he could not support it. “It’s too broad,” Sederburg said. “It just goes too far. That’s pretty much it.”

We want our federal representatives to READ bills BEFORE they vote on them. We should hold ourselves to the same standards. Read the bill and find out what this REALLY does – consolidate and give power to a very, very small number of individuals while punishing those that WE THE PEOPLE elected to represent us. The power still rests with us. If my legislator has serious ethical problems, I’ll lead the fight to get him replaced. You have the same power in your district. Don’t be fooled by the reasonable-sounding title and the flowery phrases used to describe this initiative.

posted by Holly Richardson

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