Where is the line between acting as a lawmaker on behalf of your constituents, and acting as a paid lobbyist? As the 2015 legislative session draws near, one Representative on Utah’s Capitol Hill may be drawing near it.
On November 10, 2014, a new Utah nonprofit was registered under the name “A Most Sacred Trust,” its tax status was approved only 6 weeks later, on December 22. The group advertises its mission as being to “restore trust in our school system by educating children, parents, teachers, administrators, and legislators about the realities of sexual abuse in our schools and how we can protect both children, and the adults who educate them, by establishing a safer system for all”—a laudable goal, to be sure.
Their website, mostsacredtrust.org, encourages visitors to financially support the organization, accepting both one-time and monthly monetary commitments.
The group is also touting that they have three pieces of legislation that will be run in the 2015 legislative session, which begins at the end of January—no small feat when you consider the number of nonprofits, special interests, lobbyists, corporations, and citizens in the state which would love to have their agendas promoted with legislation, and that most bills take months of work, planning, and effort before making it onto the list of proposed laws to be heard.
So how did the fledgling organization manage to get their goals before the legislature so quickly? According to tax and business filings with the state, the president of A Most Sacred Trust is Becky Ivory, wife of Representative Ken Ivory (Republican – West Jordan). The organization was registered under the name of Representative Ivory’s personal law firm, Ivory Law P.C., and all of the group’s legislation is being run by Representative Ivory himself.
This isn’t the first time the Ivorys have created an organization related to the Representative’s legislation. Representative Ivory has developed a name for himself over the past few years by pushing legislation that would forcibly take control of public lands in the state away from the United States, and turn them over to the Utah legislature to decide whether to keep or sell them. The legislation has resulted in massive disagreements between supporters of a Utah-takeover of U.S. lands and environmental groups and scholars who say the constitution does not grant individual states the authority to force the U.S. to turn over land that is being supported by tax dollars from all over the country.
In the case of the public lands takeover, Representatives Ivory and Becky Ivory created another nonprofit, called the American Lands Council, where Ken serves as President and Becky as Communications Director—both draw a salary from the company, and Representative Ivory listed ALC as his occupation when he filed for re-election. As Representative Ivory’s legislation has caught fire in local and national media, it has opened the door for him to travel all over western states under the American Lands Council banner, giving paid speaking presentations to conferences, special interests, and other lawmakers. According to its most recent 990 forms, in 2012 the American Lands Council brought in just over $122,000 thanks largely to the publicity around Representative Ivory’s own legislation.
Is there an ethical issue with a lawmaker and his spouse creating situations where they directly make a living off of the legislation they run?
“I don’t see a conflict,” Representative Ivory told Utah Political Capitol in a phone interview. “My wife is a constituent, just like how several of my other constituents have organizations or businesses working on problems. My job is simply to solve the problems.” According to Representative Ivory, it makes no difference whether or not he and his family benefit financially from the issue.
To be sure, child sex abuse in schools is a worthwhile cause, and one very personal to Becky Ivory herself. On her biography on the Most Sacred Trust website, she describes how she herself was abused by a teacher for several years during Middle School. She told UPC “It took me 11 years before I was finally brave enough to go to my school district and tell them what had happened. … They fired [the accused teacher], but then hired them back two years later without even telling me or talking to me about it.”
Like Representative Ivory, Mrs. Ivory says she sees no conflict in having him run legislation that could directly benefit their family financially. Because the organization is so new, she says, there is not yet a steady stream of donations coming in, so for now it is an all-volunteer operation. “I wish there was a salary. Maybe someday,” she added. “If we can get more attention, then maybe we can get to that point.”
The Utah legislature’s rules about conflicts of interest and members financially benefiting from their own legislation are pretty murky. In fact, situations similar to the Ivorys’ have happened in the past, says House Speaker-elect Greg Hughes (Republican – Draper).
“We’ve had spouses involved in public policy before,” says Hughes, pointing to outgoing House Speaker Becky Lockhart (Republican – Provo). Speaker Lockhart’s husband, Stan Lockhart, lobbied for STEM digital learning programs as well as IM Flash Technologies while Speaker Lockhart was serving. “We didn’t ban Stan from the Hill,” says Hughes. “As long as it’s disclosed and in the light of day, I don’t see a problem with it.”
But Representative Stephen Handy (Republican – Layton), who serves as co-chair of the House Ethics Committee, says the situation with the Ivorys’ new business could cause “a bomb” among his fellow lawmakers. “I don’t know if its an ethical violation or not. But we have to be really careful and be concerned about the public trust.” He also added that while he has a high personal level of respect for Representative Ivory, “as both a legislator and a citizen, I think the level of transparency is going to be a big question.”
The text and precise content of Representative Ivory’s legislation on behalf of A Most Sacred Trust is not yet publicly available, but Becky Ivory assured UPC that “there will be no [public] money allocated to [A Most Sacred Trust.]” However, if the Ivorys’ American Lands Council serves as a model, then the new legislation could drive a lot of public interest in the organization, which means higher donations and potentially new speaking engagements around the country, which means more revenue for the Ivorys, which means more legislation around the country, which means more revenue, etc.
Where’s the line between acting like an elected official and acting as a paid lobbyist? Does it make a difference if the cause is a really good one? Utah could be about to find out.
Eric Ethington is a journalist, activist, and researcher. Originally from Utah, he now works in Boston for a social justice think tank. His writing, advocacy work, and research have been featured on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Public Eye magazine. Follow him on Twitter @EricEthington.