By Cherise Udell
The John Swallow case shows political corruption in Utah at its finest. In essence, Swallow, as Utah Attorney General, had a “for sale” sign on his office door. Unfortunately, what Swallow did was not unique. He got caught and thoroughly exposed.
The experience of citizen advocates lobbying for clean air this past legislative session revealed that many elected officials in Utah have also been seduced by big money and power. This was demonstrated to us with daily high-fives and chummy back-slapping between many state legislators and industry lobbyists. And that was in public view — who knows what was happening behind closed doors!
Actually, we do know. These industrial lobbyists were making every effort to undermine legislation that would impact big industry’s ability to pollute. These same lobbyists — many from the law firm Parsons, Behle & Latimer — also suggest and help write pollution-friendly legislation. Yes, these pro-pollution lobbyists get paid big bucks for big results (they have to, otherwise who would want to be pro-pollution?) — and the outcome is that our democracy is compromised and our lungs suffer.
In another example, we regularly contacted lawmakers and tried to arrange meetings. Occasionally, a lawmaker would come out in front of the chambers and listen for two or three minutes before dashing back inside. Meanwhile, we watched industry lobbyists being readily escorted to the private spaces hidden behind the Senate chambers.
We knew industrial lobbyists crawled on the hill like red ants raiding a picnic, but we were shocked to see that Rio Tinto/Kennecott, Utah’s biggest polluter, alone had fourteen registered lobbyists, while medical waste incinerator Stericycle had eight. A few of these lobbyists are what some would call mercenaries, in that they lobby for multiple big polluters.
It quickly became clear that the public is no match for this army of pro-pollution lobbyists stationed full-time on the Hill. After all, how many citizens can take six weeks off work to spend all day at the Capitol during a legislative session? How many citizens have the legal background to understand, let alone write, complex bills?
How many citizens can show up to testify at committee hearings with only 24-hour notice? How many nonprofits can afford to hire a hotshot lobbyist from Parsons, Behle, & Latimer, which brags on its website, “[we] not only assist clients in complying with the law, we help shape it.”
Unfortunately, the access these paid lobbyists enjoy matters tremendously. As Sen. Dabakis lamented during a committee hearing, “The system is rigged to not have clean air.” Consequently, mandatory rules are made voluntary, enforcement measures the public wants are removed, and the government entities designed to protect our health become industry puppets.
Citizens demanding clean air fight a good battle in an unfair war.
But remember, we do have truth, justice and what is morally right on our side. We can make our own army of determined citizens — no one is stopping us. At our January Clean Air No Excuses rally an army of more than 4,000 citizens was assembled. In the end, our democracy, when vigorously utilized, does ensure that justice prevails over injustice. The recent resignation of Swallow attests to this. So does the fact that despite the system being rigged against us, numerous clean air bills did pass.
So to the Utah citizens that exercised their democratic rights this past session, Utah Moms for Clean Air thanks you. For all of those who did not, but wanted to, we encourage you to get involved.
Finally, to all of the legislators who truly looked out for the public good in spite of temptation not to, we celebrate you as heroes in the good fight for what is right.
Cherise Udell is founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air.