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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A review from the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press finds that Utah has one of the country's highest numbers of lawmakers working for a single company — with four working for Zions Bank.
Legislators who work for Zions say the bank never tells them how to vote, even on a major bond bill this year that benefited the bank.
Utah, like many states around the country, has a citizen legislature in which most lawmakers hold another job outside of public office. While such outside employment gives lawmakers expertise in certain policy areas, many of those jobs are directly affected by the actions of the legislatures.
The Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press found numerous examples of state lawmakers around the country who have introduced and supported legislation that directly and indirectly helped their own businesses, their employers or their personal finances. The practice is enabled by limited disclosure requirements for personal financial information and self-policing that often excuses seemingly blatant conflicts.
The review, based on an analysis of disclosure reports from 6,933 lawmakers in the 47 states that required them, found that at least 76 percent of state lawmakers holding office in 2015 worked other jobs.
In Utah, two Zions Bank employees — Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, and Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, signed on this year as co-sponsors of legislation that allows borrowing up to $1 billion to pay for highway projects.
Zions Bank, the state's contracted adviser for all bonds, is expected eventually to collect about $880,000 in fees from the sale, according to state Treasurer David Damschen.
Van Tassell and Anderegg both said the bond legislation made sense for Utah and that their employer has never told them how to vote.
Zions Bank said in a statement that any of its employees who serve as legislators "do so as citizens and representatives of the people in their district."
"While Zions Bank has a long-standing tradition of encouraging employee participation in the political process, any employee elected to any public office is reminded that in their political office they are there to serve the state and their constituents, not Zions Bank," the bank's executive vice president, Rob Brough, said in the statement. "They are also reminded that the choices they make while serving in office should be made based on what is in the best interest of their constituents, regardless of the impact to Zions Bank."
Anderegg, a business development consultant for the bank, said he knew Zions was the state's bond adviser, but it didn't occur to him when he sponsored the legislation and voted for it that his employer would collect some fees. He said he supported the bill because many of the road projects would help ease traffic backups in his district that have been a nightmare.
"It never even crossed my mind that this was in some way a benefit to Zions Bank," he said.
Anderegg and Van Tassell both list their employer on their conflict disclosure forms, the only disclosure they were required to make under state law and legislative rules.
Anderegg said that when he has had a direct, personal conflict-of-interest on bills in the past, he's recused himself. For example, he recused himself from voting on a bill providing tax credits for some adoptions while he was in the middle of adopting a child himself.
Van Tassell, an area president for three branches of the bank in northeastern Utah, said he supported the bond bill because it would speed up construction on needed projects.
"The bank has never told me how to vote on anything yet. And I don't anticipate that happening," he said.
"If you want to go deep enough, "Van Tassell added, "we've all got conflicts on every bill. But the best part about being a citizen legislature is you have to go home and live with what you voted on."
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