Utah gov's opposition to ethics initiative muddled

Utah gov's opposition to ethics initiative muddled

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's opposition to an initiative that calls for creating an independent ethics commission and a code of conduct for state lawmakers is becoming increasingly unclear following a meeting with the initiative's sponsors.

Herbert met with leaders of Utahns for Ethical Government on Thursday, one week after he opposed it, saying he had listened to people on both sides of the issue and decided it contained constitutional and due process problems, which he didn't specify.

Those public comments, made during a televised news conference, frustrated the initiative's leaders who said they had tried for months to meet with the governor to outline why he should support the effort.

On Thursday, they got their chance and found a largely receptive audience with Herbert, who said during a 30 minute meeting that he supported many of the initiative's provisions.

"I like the idea of an independent commission. I like the idea of transparency and disclosure," Herbert said.

The governor said one thing he disliked is the possibility of an independent body convicting a lawmaker of a felony.

Initiative supporters pointed out to Herbert that the proposal wouldn't create any criminal penalties and the commission couldn't convict anybody of a crime or any other wrongdoing.

Instead, the commission would make recommendations to the Legislature, which would then be required to publicly vote on them.

Under Utah's constitution, state lawmakers are responsible for disciplining themselves for ethical violations, although it rarely happens.

Still, Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, a former Senate leader who attended Thursday's meeting, said the recommendations would amount to a finding of guilt in the public eye.

"You're going to be convicted in the media," he said.

While polls have shown most Utahns favor stricter ethics guidelines for state lawmakers, most Republican legislators want to defeat the proposal. They worry that strong candidates won't run for office out of fear of being accused of being unethical.

Provisions in the code of conduct that legislators have also complained about are a ban on gifts from lobbyists, limitations on legislators registering as lobbyists and a prohibition on serving on a corporate board solely because the person was appointed because of his or her position as a state lawmaker.

Lawmakers and Herbert have also complained that creating campaign contribution limits would make it difficult for less affluent candidates to run for office, although the limit wouldn't apply to races for statewide offices.

Utah is one of six states that doesn't place any limits on campaign contributions.

Kim Burningham, a former GOP lawmaker and an initiative sponsor, said following Thursday's meeting he still doesn't know exactly why Herbert is opposed to the proposal.

"The actual initiative is not fully understood as we saw in some of the exchanges that took place in the meeting," he said. "We are facing what we would call misperceptions."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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