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Gov. Herbert should set example for being above reproach

Published September 17, 2010 12:01 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"Leadership Begins with 'Follow Me.'" That's a phrase plastered everywhere at the Infantry Training Center at Fort Benning, along with the admonition for would-be officers that "the commander is responsible for all his unit does or fails to do."

The person in charge sets and enforces the standards for the organization. How well a boss succeeds is the difference between being a leader and being a placeholder.

A 2008 Pew Center report gave Utah an A-minus for being a well-managed state, but little has been said about the D-minus for our deficient ethics laws. There are headlines about a possible "pay-to-play" linkage between contributions to the campaign of Gov. Gary Herbert and multi-million dollar contract awards. The state paid $13 million to settle an unsuccessful bidder's complaint — a settlement the governor says he didn't know about.

More surprise headlines followed about a $231,000 loss to taxpayers from a UDOT employee's ethics lapses and the failure of many political party entities to file required financial reports with the lieutenant governor.

Herbert insists that there have been no trades of cash for favors, but to focus only on that is to miss the real issue, which is a systemic failure by the executive and legislative branches to guard against the appearance of corruption. No one set or enforced the kinds of ethical standards that public officers owe the citizenry. This disdain for "how things look" is as corrosive of public trust as payola, and that's what translates to a leadership failure.

It's inexcusable that companies seeking lucrative state contracts are permitted to make unlimited campaign donations to the governor and legislators. It's also inexcusable for these state officers to be requesting businesses and individuals to make donations in excess of the federal election law limits.

It's inexcusable that donors aren't required to identify their occupation or employer. It's inexcusable that a state contract can be awarded to any bidder who has made a large campaign contribution to a state officer within six months prior to submitting a bid, or that a contribution is allowed to be made within six months of receiving a contract award.

Until the Legislature adopts those kinds of basic reforms, politicians and contractors will play the game for all it's worth; there will be more of what was reported last week, and public confidence in politics and politicians will sink ever lower.

It's no coincidence that voter participation in Utah is now down to 48th in the country. People perceive that their vote doesn't matter — and the perception of "you scratch my back with money and I'll scratch yours with favors" has as much to do with voter disgust as anything else.

Our D-minus in ethics is well-deserved. A recent poll showed 78 percent of Utahns favoring limits on campaign contributions. Herbert obliged by voluntarily limiting donations to his campaign to $50,000 per donor, and not a penny more. Our Legislature invites the appearance of a government for sale: 46 states limit campaign contributions, but not Utah.

Some will pish-posh the idea of any connection between the timing of large campaign contributions and the award of largesse, or they'll claim that a challenger does the same thing. However, challengers don't typically have the loaves and fishes which an incumbent can dispense, and therefore it's not the same thing at all. It's also unrealistic, and unfair, to expect any candidate to operate under a different standard than the law allows for all candidates. That leads to the problematic question of who should go first.

Clearly, the Legislature has no intention of going first. That's why 115,000 of us signed an ethics reform initiative petition to give voters a chance to pass a meaningful reform law.

However, there's an opportunity here for a real leader to step up to the plate and show real leadership. It won't work if only one candidate agrees to a voluntary contribution limit, and it won't work if one can diss the others by claiming grandstanding.

A real leader knows the importance of making a serious issue an equal win-win. The guy in charge of loaves and fishes would take some risk by going first; but if following the federal election contribution limits is OK for our federal candidates, who also run statewide, why aren't those same limits acceptable for those who would be Utah's chief executive?

David R. Irvine is a Salt Lake City lawyer, a former Republican legislator, and one of the drafters of the Utahns for Ethical Government initiative petition.






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