SALT LAKE CITY -- The leader of the Alliance for a Better Utah thinks a recent move by Gov. Gary Herbert to appoint an ethics panel to oversee possible misconduct among members of the state's executive branch of government is little more than public relations.
Herbert announced the appointment of five people last week to an ethics commission to investigate any complaints of wrongdoing or malfeasance by the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, auditor or treasurer. Creation of the ethics commission came as the result of legislation run this past session by veteran lawmaker Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who said there is oversight to the conduct of legislators, but not the executive branch. The group has subpoena powers but does not have the power of criminal prosecution.
Mary Ann Martindale, executive director for ABU said she has little hope the group will be successful.
"The governor, Legislature and other elected officials do not seem interested in pursuing true ethical reform. Instead, they seem more interested in these small-measure attempts that are really more PR than substance," Martindale said.
She said the group has no prosecutorial powers, so anything they would do would result in recommendations only.
"We hold out little hope that the governor or Legislature would really follow through with them," Martindale said.
Two current members of the executive branch are currently under investigation for alleged wrongdoing, including Attorney General John Swallow and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell. Swallow faces several allegations of misconduct, including being linked to a plan to pay off Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to call off a federal probe of a Utah businessman. Bell is the subject of a Davis County investigation into allegations that he abused his power in a child abuse case involving a neighbor.
Both Bell and Swallow have denied any wrongdoing.
The commission has power to review cases that may come up in the future and not power to go back retroactively and review previous charges, so the old charges for Swallow and Bell would not be subject to group review.
Martindale said the current debate over possible impeachment of Swallow has shown that until the public reaches a boiling point, neither the Legislature nor the governor take any action.
Sen. Valentine said his committee walked a very fine line in deciding to limit the commission's authority to recommendation only. He said the ethics committee overseeing the Legislature is limited to recommendations only, too.
Valentine insists party allegiances won't get in the way of the Legislature doing what is right. He expressed fatigue over the Swallow allegations and said everyone in the Legislature wants to see the issues dealt with.
Martindale is not so sure.
"It is not about whether they are concerned about the actual allegations, but rather about their concern over possibly becoming tainted themselves by those allegations. They like to tell the people that we live in a representative form of government rather than a democracy, and as such, we elect them to a position of trust and they do what is right for those they represent. Unfortunately, it is all too clear that the only ones they really represent are themselves, their high-value donors and other elected officials that help support the status quo," she said.
The five people named to the panel are former judge Anthony Schofield and former elected officials Val Oveson, Carol Nixon and Lorie Fowlke, as well as the Rev. Corey Hodges, a citizen.
Hodges told the Standard-Examiner it is an honor to serve, but shied away from making any comment on whether the commission will play a role in restoring trust regarding possible misconduct among elected officials.