Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Conflict of interest laws in Utah, Nevada, and the Supreme Court

One of today’s top news stories is the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Nevada’s conflict of interest law in the face of a First Amendment challenge. Here, for example, is the excellent write-up in the New York Times:
Even while the federal courts are allowing corporations to shelter their political contributions under the First Amendment, it’s good to know that elected officials can’t similarly shelter their conflicts of interest.

The general principle here is simple enough: An elected representative’s vote on a particular piece of legislation is not protected speech, because casting such a vote is a function of the representative’s office, rather than a personal right.

The particulars of the Nevada case are also interesting. The offending official was a city council member in Sparks, a city just slightly bigger than Ogden. His offense was to vote to approve a casino project that his campaign manager was closely involved with. (Whether that association was close enough to create a conflict of interest is a tricky question that the Supreme Court didn’t try to answer.)

Could a similar conflict of interest arise in Ogden? Obviously the proposed development wouldn’t be a casino, but our mayor and city council exert tremendous control over local real estate developments. It’s easy to imagine that some of these officials, or their family members or close associates, might have a financial interest in a project seeking city approval. But how would we know? Utah’s disclosure requirements for local officials are extremely weak. Also, whereas Nevada has a state Commission on Ethics that investigates and punishes ethics violations, Utah law trusts the mayor to oversee all such investigations within a city—even when it’s the mayor who commits the violation!

The Ogden Ethics Project platform would address these shortcomings in the following ways:
  • Require elected officials and appropriate employees to disclose all ownership of, or financial interest in, real property in Weber County, as well as any financial interest in companies doing business in Weber County.
  • Establish a process whereby the city council can investigate allegations of conflict of interest involving the mayor.
  • Post all conflict of interest disclosure statements on the city’s web site.
Beyond these basic measures, we hope that someday the Utah Legislature will create a state ethics commission, raising Utah’s ethical standards at least to the level of Nevada’s.


  1. This is embarrassing for Utah and also for Ogden. For a predominantly Mormon state, it does not speak well.

  2. The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board expresses similar sentiments to ours in today's editorial, which also cites a current example of a Utah legislator attempting to pass a law to further his personal business interest.