SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers are overhauling an ethics committee that investigates the state’s top elected officials, but critics said Friday that the changes may make it harder to file a complaint and easier for elected officials to get away with unethical behavior.
Provo Republican Sen. Curt Bramble said the changes his bill has proposed would make it easier for the commission to investigate complaints but ensure that the committee is only looking into serious issues such as crimes or a “substantial breach of trust.”
The bill makes changes to the Independent Executive Branch Ethics Commission, which handles complaints filed against the governor, lieutenant governor, state auditor, state treasurer or attorney general, along with the Political Subdivisions Ethics Review Commission, which handles ethics complaints against local government officials and employees.
Critics said changes requiring someone to have firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing would mean fewer people could file a complaint.
Chase Thomas with the government-watchdog group Alliance for a Better Utah said of the 46 states that allow people to file ethics complaints against public officials, only five require someone to have firsthand knowledge to lodge a complaint.
Bramble said the change will prevent people from filing complaints based on hearsay or unsubstantiated rumors they might read online.
“Anybody could say anything,” Bramble said.
A Senate government operations committee unanimously passed his bill Friday. Four members, two of whom are the committee’s only Democrats, were absent.
Bramble’s bill now must be approved by the full Senate and the House of Representatives.
Bramble’s bill also requires the ethics commission to submit its annual report of how many complaints it handles and its finances to the governor instead of a panel of lawmakers.
If the commission finds that an ethics complaint has merit, it would still be required to send it to the Legislature for possible impeachment of the top elected officials.
The changes come after a former state prosecutor in January told the lawmakers on the Legislative Management Committee that a wide-ranging complaint he filed two years ago was not addressed by the commission.
Wanda Amann, who co-signed the ethics complaint with her husband, told lawmakers Friday that the bill did not go far enough to ensure that ethics complaints are fairly investigated.
Bramble said he was unaware of that Amann’s complaint before the presentation and started making changes a year ago.
Her husband, Paul G. Amann, a former Assistant Utah Attorney General, has declined to name which state office he filed his complaint but told lawmakers that members of the ethics commission mishandled and dismissed his complaint despite having personal conflicts of interest.
The commission chair, Lorie Fowlke, is married to a man who works for the office he was complaining about, Amann told lawmakers.
Fowlke told the The Associated Press that she removes herself from complaints where she has a conflict.
She said state law prevents her from commenting on any complaint or confirming a complaint exists. While she said she could not comment directly on Amann’s allegations, she added that “if I could I suspect it is not accurate.”
Amann is one of two former state prosecutors who have filed lawsuits against the Attorney General’s Office alleging they were retaliated against and forced out of their jobs for reporting wrongdoing and harassment.
Attorney General Sean Reyes’ office has denied the allegations and is asking a court to dismiss the lawsuits.