SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House Special Investigative Committee endorsed proposed changes to state election laws Friday based on what it found to be murky campaign activities on the part of former Attorney General John Swallow.
One bill would add witness tampering, altering government records and bribery in a legislative investigation or audit to Utah's organized crime law. Three or more of the offenses taken together could be prosecuted as a third-degree felony.
A second measure would significantly expand the information candidates and officeholders would have to show on financial reports.
"I find it extremely egregious that we have to go to these lengths because of what happened in this particular instance," said House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, a member of the committee. "Things are going to be different from this time forward."
The bipartisan panel expects to draft a third bill dealing with the enforcement of legislative subpoenas. Also, several lawmakers outside the committee have election reform legislation pending.
Investigators say Swallow's campaign devised a strategy to hide hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the payday loan industry and that he destroyed data and created documents to hide wrongdoing. They also allege he deliberately deleted information in computer files and other electronic devices. Swallow has denied the allegations.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said the bills are a good step toward more transparency and addressing "dark money," campaign funds that are not disclosed to voters before to the election.
The committee found that Swallow's campaign consultant ran $450,000 through a network of entities, including some set up as nonprofit associations. The money was used to attack Swallow's GOP primary election opponent and a state legislator who lost his seat.
"They'll be required under this legislation to report that on the candidate's financial disclosure form," Dunnigan said, adding it took the committee's investigation to figure out how the Swallow campaign used the $450,000 in dark money.
It's as important to know the source of the money as how it was spent, he said.
Dunnigan acknowledged that candidates could find ways around whatever laws the Legislature passes.
"Our committee is aware that you cannot plug all the holes. But we're trying to address the ones we thought were major," he said.
The committee also discussed but didn't endorse two bills that other lawmakers have already brought forward.
HB246, sponsored by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, would impose a $50 or 15 percent fine, whichever is higher, on campaign contributions that aren't reported within the 30-day period required by law. There currently isn't a penalty for failing to meet the deadline.
"If it’s a big contribution, you're going to suffer a big penalty if you don’t report that on time," Hall said.
In HB144, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, proposes to create an elections board that would advise the state election office on campaign complaints. A three-member panel of retired judges would determine the extent of any violations based on the elections office investigation.
The House investigative committee has yet to number any of the three bills it expects to run this session. The legislation can't be introduced until the committee formally adopts its final report on Swallow on March 7, leaving a week before the session ends.
The Alliance for Better Utah, whose complaint against Swallow resulted in five alleged violations of state election law, complained that lawmakers aren't moving fast enough. The 45-day legislative session is more than half over.
Still, after Friday's meeting, the group says it's hopeful ethics legislation will make its way to the governor’s desk.
"The bills recommended by the committee will make important inroads to improving our election laws," the Alliance for a Better Utah said in a statement. "They help clarify and refine the disclosure rules that Swallow ignored, as well as provide enhanced penalties that would help curtail patterns of unethical behavior, or at least provide significant remedy, should politicians choose to behave unethically."
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