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Utah House Majority Leader Brad Dee returned this week from a trip to Europe that included an eight-day Rhine River cruise with three prominent Capitol Hill lobbyists and their spouses.

While the trip is not a first, and does not appear to violate legislative ethics rules, since the couples paid their own way on the vacation, experts say it raises questions about perception and propriety.

"I totally understand that these people can be friends. The problem is the perception of this is problematic on so many levels," said Thad Hall, a political scientist at the University of Utah.

Along with Dee, R-Ogden, and his wife, Marsha, were Rob Jolley, Dave Stewart and former House Speaker Greg Curtis, who combined represent more than six dozen clients.

Several of those clients were cities that received millions in earmarks for road construction projects through a major bill Dee sponsored the past two years.

The four couples left for Europe on Mother's Day and floated down the Rhine River, making stops along the way in the Swiss and French Alps for dining, hiking, shopping and touring castles in the historic mountain towns. They returned Wednesday.

Dee said the couples were meticulous about dividing up the bill, making sure each paid their own share, and he offered to show the receipts to anyone interested.

Good friends • "They're very good friends. I can guarantee that we never talked politics, because we're not involved in legislation right now. I wouldn't allow for any discussions of the day. No lobbying took place. I was with my spouse. That was just the way it is," Dee said.

"I'm not going to hide from the fact that the former speaker of the House went on to become a lobbyist, but I don't know how I can say, 'I can't be friends with you anymore,' " Dee said.

Curtis, who served in the Legislature until 2009, said he and his wife have been friends with the Dees for 15 years. They own homes in St. George and coordinate their trips and activities in southern Utah to spend time together.

"We set the parameters of our relationship such that Brad understands the rules and what they are," Curtis said. "I'm not going to let someone's definition of appropriate or inappropriate determine who my friends are and who I can socialize with."

Jolley said it's not uncommon for legislators and lobbyists to develop relationships that extend outside of the Capitol.

"It isn't the first time you've had legislators and lobbyists vacation together, probably won't be the last either," he said.

Indeed, in 2007, then-Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, and current House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, and their spouses spent two weeks in a villa in Italy with lobbyist Paul Rogers.

All parties said at the time they were close personal friends and each paid their own way on the trip.

Appearances • "I understand how people could wonder about it, but here in Utah where the relationship with lobbyists and legislators is so close because we have a part-time Legislature, they really have no staff … there are going to be some legislators you click with and some you don't," Jolley said.

Hall said there are two legitimate sides to the issue.

People become friends, and it doesn't make sense for them to stop being friends because one of them happens to be a lobbyist.

"The flip side, of course, is even if what I said is true, it looks really bad," Hall said. "As a legislator and even as a lobbyist, they should want to look like they're not engaging in activities that are violating the spirit or the letter of the law."

He said it not only creates problems for Dee, but also could create problems for the lobbyists, if they are seen by other lobbyists or lawmakers as gaining some special favor from Dee.

"They should know this is going to look bad and take that into account," Hall said.

Last session, Dee sponsored HB377, which circumvented the Utah Transportation Commission and prioritized $41.5 million in road projects — with 62 percent of the money for specific projects in the bill going to clients represented by Curtis, Jolley and Stewart.

Jolley said there was nothing nefarious about the road money that came through Dee's bill. He said the Legislature prioritizes projects in Salt Lake County, and every city in the county — except for Holladay — got at least one project funded.

Lockhart was the only House member to vote against HB377 and later said a number of lawmakers did not understand what it did when they voted for it. She did not return a request for comment Thursday.

gehrke@sltrib.comTwitter: @RobertGehrke