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Utah law professors, constituents urge Chaffetz to investigate Trump — and poll shows voters agree

Published March 24, 2017 8:18 am

Oversight • Petition has 1,000 signatures; Tribune-Hinckley poll shows most Utahns want investigation of Russia ties, conflicts of interest.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Months before President Donald Trump was elected, Rep. Jason Chaffetz vowed to provide rigorous oversight if the then-GOP nominee followed through on some of his wilder ideas from the campaign trail.

"I'm going to be a kid in a candy store," Chaffetz said in June.

But with Trump now in the White House, critics say Chaffetz, as chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is giving lip service to multiple concerns raised about Trump's ties to Russia, that country's alleged meddling in the U.S. election in favor of Trump and conflicts of interest with the president's global businesses.



"Most kids that I know in a candy store would do more than look at their feet," says Brigham Daniels, a law professor at Brigham Young University who lives in Chaffetz's district.

"The Constitution provides for this oversight," Daniels added. "The Constitution was written by people who all sat down together and agreed, 'We can't trust each other.' He's giving Trump a pass on this."

With that in mind, Daniels orchestrated petitions — now signed by more than 1,000 people, including law professors from BYU and the University of Utah – urging Chaffetz to launch investigations into Trump's possible conflicts of interest or violations of a constitutional clause against receiving foreign benefits.

Utahns agree by a more than two-to-one margin, according to a new Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll. An even 60 percent of registered voters said Chaffetz should probe the potential conflicts, while just 32 percent said he shouldn't.

The poll was conducted March 15-21 by Dan Jones & Associates among 605 registered voters statewide and has a margin of error of 3.98 percent.

The petition states: "We ask you, Rep. Chaffetz, to provide robust oversight of President Trump, just as you promised your constituents you would before being re-elected. To protect the integrity and strength of our institutions, including our Constitution, the times require a thorough investigation of President Trump's conflicts of interest."

For his part, Chaffetz said Thursday that he's already launched several probes into the Trump administration, including requesting documents this week from the White House about then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned after admitting to misleading the administration about his conversations with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Chaffetz also pointed out that through his inquiries, he prompted the General Services Administration to review Trump's government lease for his Trump Hotel in Washington, leading the GSA on Thursday to say the lease was in "full compliance."

"I'm already doing several investigations," Chaffetz said. "Some are public. Some are not. It is important to note that the president is exempt from conflict of interest laws. That doesn't mean we're not looking at several items."

The law technically does exempt the president from conflict of interest laws that apply to other government employees, but as the law professors and others point out in their petition, the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution does apply and forbids a government official from taking money or other benefits from foreign sources.

Critics have complained — including at a raucous town hall meeting Chaffetz held — that the congressman isn't taking on the U.S. intelligence community's finding that Russia had attempted to influence the presidential election in Trump's favor, but Chaffetz countered that probe should come under the House Intelligence Committee's purview and that he has daily conversations with its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.

"I've already done far more investigative work on this administration than we did of the Obama administration at the same time" into his tenure, Chaffetz said. "Far more. People like to equate the vigorous oversight I did of Hillary Clinton to their perceptions of Donald Trump. I didn't do an investigation of Hillary Clinton in her first two months. I did it after four Americans were killed and the secretary of state lied about it."

Chaffetz's answers don't square with those who signed the petitions and expect more from the Oversight Committee chairman.

Sarah Brinton, a lawyer and Republican who voted for Chaffetz but not for Trump — she opted for independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin — says it's Chaffetz's obligation and duty to provide oversight of the executive branch, including the president, and that he should be excited about his role.

"I want him to provide a check on President Trump," Brinton said. "I really want that. I wanted that during President Obama['s tenure], I would have wanted it under Hillary Clinton and I want that under President Trump. ... I don't want Trump to get a pass because he's a Republican."

Matt Evans, a self-described lifelong conservative Republican and non-practicing lawyer who lives in Chaffetz's district and voted for him but not for Trump, said the steps Chaffetz has taken so far on the administration are a "sham."

"He would be all over this if Hillary were the president with these deep conflicts — it would be Benghazi 2.0.," Evans said. "Unless Chaffetz musters the courage and morals to investigate these critical issues even though Trump won't like it, he has a moral obligation to step down and let someone that cares more about our country than their political party run the Oversight Committee."

Lincoln Davies, the associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law who signed the petition, says there needs to be transparency in government especially when Trump has such an unprecedented business empire.

"When somebody has this many business interests that are so far reaching in so many different countries and when decisions are made on a day-to-day basis can influence the profitability of those corporations, it's not a fishing expedition," said Davies, an unaffiliated voter. "There's clear evidence before you of a risk, so you need to evaluate the risk."

Christopher Peterson, a professor of law at the U. and a registered Democrat, said if Chaffetz were serious about oversight he would subpoena Trump's tax returns to see what business relationships he has.

"It is outrageous and a little pathetic that the House Oversight Committee has done nothing to investigate quite glaring violations of the Constitution," Peterson said. "Chaffetz swore an oath to defend the Constitution and he now broke that."

Chaffetz says those calling for broad investigations need to understand that such probes can take time — he noted he's still looking into the so-called Fast and Furious scandal from 2010 in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed straw-gun purchases where the firearms ended up in drug dealers hands — and that such oversight will come.

"This is now Donald Trump's administration," Chaffetz said, "and there will inevitably be someone doing something stupid somewhere."

tburr@sltrib.com

 

 

 

 

 

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