Business is hard all over, especially if you have no knack at all for it to begin with. UTA Board membership solves that problem. Board membership means you’ll get inside information on where the next phenomenally useless and costly rail hub will be planted, and if you didn’t buy property in time near the hub, no problem, because your board membership means that you can swing other board members to move the hub closer to where it will benefit you. No kidding. This actually has happened.
But what if people were to go, hmm… Might there be some conflicts here? We’ve already discussed conflicts in Utah, and how those with the conflicts have an uncanny ability to NOT recognize them, but just in case, Utah Representative and UTA Board Chairman Greg Hughes and Best Friend Forever John Dougall (also Utah rep, just not on the UTA Board, yet) have figured out a solution for that too.
Secrecy is key
Companion bills SB 222 (Sponsor: Bramble) which guts the measly conflict of interest language currently in UTA’s statute, and Dougall’s own HB 477, which erases public access to government records through the Government Records and Management Act – GRAMA – ensure that UTA board members will have a free pass to profiteer.
SB 222 lets them totally off the hook, as long as they’ve fessed up to the conflict up front, and HB477 ensures that anyone still troubled about the process will have no way to look into it any further. The paper trail will be virtually secret and what’s left of it will be too costly for an ordinary citizen to obtain.
UTA Attorney Bruce Jones learned, to his everlasting regret, about the dangers of GRAMA, when Save Our Canyons used the Act to obtain the copious emails he’d sent directly from UTA offices to Cottonwood Heights city planner Michael Black about the Tavaci development proposed by UTA Board Member Terry Diehl near a UTA park & ride. Jones, whose unusually verbose (for a lawyer) emails did an end run around Cottonwood Heights’ city manager in order to communicate directly with Black, profited from an $80,000 raise (32%) at UTA during this period. The unpleasant memory of the exposed emails, which essentially killed the development, may have something to do with Jones’s feverish promotion of SB 222, which dovetails so nicely with HB 477.
But don’t take my word for it. Claire Geddes, the citizen watchdog with nearly twenty years under her belt going after nonsense like this, explains:
I have spent the better part of the past two decades working under a national
organization (United We Stand), a state non-profit I co-founded (Utah Legislative Watch), and as an individual citizen advocating for open and accountable government, ethics and campaign reform. I have advocated on utility issues, tax issues, RDAs, zoning issues, education issues, trade issues and issues dealing with both Envirocare and EnergySolutions.
This experience has taught me that GRAMA is essential for individuals, the press and good government groups in getting basic information and holding our elected officials accountable.
This past summer, along with others, I questioned a conflict of interest of a UTA board member and the extremely high salaries of UTA officials. During that time there were records requests filed with UTA which were denied. In fact, UTA changed its policy on GRAMA requests, requiring citizens to appeal such requests in the courts, making it virtually impossible for an individual to successfully file one.
In June, Rep. Greg Hughes was nominated to chair the UTA board. I strongly opposed his nomination and gathered signatures to present to the board. At that meeting, Rep. John Dougall, the sponsor of HB 477, the bill that drives a stake in the heart of GRAMA, testified on behalf of Rep Hughes, chastising those who spoke against him. At that meeting I approached Rep. Hughes telling him that UTA’s record access policies were denying citizens like me access.
The next morning Rep. Hughes called me to say he was going to change the process; that making the appeals process to the courts rather than the records committee did not shorten the process. In media reports, he claimed he was going to usher in a new era of transparency at UTA.
Unfortunately, that openness was short lived. Once again, Rep. Dougall came to the rescue, sponsoring HB 477. Most of my work on behalf of the public has been voluntary, so raising the cost for records access would eliminate my ability to have access. I have to wonder if that isn’t the reason for this legislation: to keep us pesky citizen watchdogs at bay. Rep. Greg Hughes voted in favor of HB 477. So much for his promise of openness and accountability.
Unfortunately, I didn’t even know HB 477 had been released and wasn’t able to testify against it. I was busy trying to testify against a few of the many bills attacking education and fighting Senator Bramble’s legislation (SB 222). This bill strikes down the entire conflict of interest code of the Transit Authority Act that was the basis for the Auditor General’s report on the alleged conflict of interest for a UTA board member.
The audit, requested by Rep. Fisher recommended the entire matter be forwarded to the Attorney General for further investigation since it found evidence that a legal violation may have occurred.
At the interim audit subcommittee meeting where the report was discussed, Rep. Hughes stated that the statute could be addressed at the next legislative session. Rep. Fisher’s HB 146 would have made it clear that a UTA board member could not have any interest in a contract where UTA is involved, even if the employee discloses the conflict.
Rep. Hughes told Rep. Fisher he kept her bill in rules, saying that it was released too late in the session. However, the much more complex GRAMA legislation HB 477 was released March 1st and went to committee March 2nd. Rep Fisher’s bill was released February 25th and will apparently die a slow death in rules.
This is the ugly game some powerful legislators play to avoid public scrutiny. You look at these two bills together and the public has a lot to worry about. Do we really want UTA board members to profit from their public service? And how will we ever know the extent of the conflicts if we are not allowed access?
I was right to oppose Rep. Hughes’ UTA chairmanship. My concerns have materialized. To have a powerful Representative such as Hughes chair the UTA board gives him the ability to help pass bills to limit access and change the conflict of interest laws for the worse, essentially legalizing corruption. Is this really what the Utah Legislature wants? Is this really what Utahns want?