Monday, March 12, 2007

That ain't workin' that's the way you do it...

Friends of Curtis fared well in '07 bills
Clients of his law firm are among the big winners
By Judy Fahys
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated:03/11/2007 12:10:57 AM MST

Lawyer Michael Emery got a harsh lesson in Utah lawmaking recently from legislation that pits his client against a Sandy developer represented by the law firm of perhaps the most powerful member of the state Legislature.

And when the lesson was done, his client, U.S. Steel, appeared to be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in hazardous waste cleanup costs, with no say in the matter.

Emery arrived at the sole committee hearing for SB271 the day after getting a worried call last month from the Pittsburgh-based steelmaker, which shares cleanup responsibilities at the old Geneva Steel site in Utah County with an arm of Anderson Development. Emery spoke to the committee for just a few minutes, saying the bill "violates due process."

But he was clearly no match for sponsoring Sen. Sheldon Killpack, a member of Republican leadership from Davis County and a law partner of House Speaker Greg Curtis in the firm that represents Anderson. The bill passed the Senate and House a few days later with just one dissenting vote - after a total of less than one hour of public discussion - and was signed into law by the governor the following week.

"It moved way too fast," said Emery. "It was understood way too little and seemed a fait acompli before we even heard about it."

In-house clout

In fact, Anderson had a very good year at the Utah Legislature. With its close ties to Curtis, it was able to push through key parts of a pro-development agenda while remaining under the radar.

The two-year-old law firm Hutchings Baird Curtis & Astill had a small list of favored legislation this year - and most of it passed with little or no controversy. Curtis did not sponsor any of the bills, but his influence was, by several accounts, obvious.

"I think the system's working very well," said Michael Hutchings, the former 3rd District judge and a partner in the firm that is famous in Utah for its pro-developer lawsuits against communities and land-use activists. "I can say we have a responsive Legislature, and the bills, they are passing by fairly wide margins.

"I don't see a problem here."

Nor does Curtis, a Sandy Republican known for getting his way through steel-fisted discipline in the Legislature and a Houdini-like ability to escape political scandals outside it.

Back in 2004, when Curtis joined the law firm, he dismissed criticism, saying it was not involved in state government.

He landed at the law firm on the rebound from his job as counsel to besieged Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman - a position he resigned after getting snagged in controversy for double-dipping, getting state reimbursement for driving his county-owned and -fueled vehicle to the Legislature.

And, before that, he served as West Jordan's city attorney at a time when that government came under fire for a series of controversial actions. The scandal never resulted in criminal charges, but several city officials lost their appointed and elected positions.

More recently, Curtis survived his re-election by the thinnest of margins - 20 votes - although his Sandy district is heavily Republican. That narrow victory, however, didn't hamper his ability to win election by his peers to a second term as speaker and had no apparent effect on his considerable power in the office.

Behind the scenes, Curtis relied on other lawmakers to help secure funding for a controversial Sandy soccer stadium.

Curtis, though, says he doesn't "insert himself" into legislation pushed by Anderson and noted that conflicts of interest are a matter of fact in a part-time Legislature like Utah's.

"You can't restrict someone else's right to petition the Legislature because we are a part-time Legislature," he said. "It's not only their right, but it's appropriate for them to petition government."

Anderson reported spending $43,750 last year in campaign contributions, partly through direct contributions from the company and its Geneva development arm, and partly through the 25-company political action committee of developers, the Utah Property Rights Coalition. The money went to GOP candidates associated with the legislative leaders and the self-styled Conservative Caucus.

Many of these lawmakers played a role in advancing priority bills for Curtis' firm:
* SB218, carried by Sen. Curt Bramble, a Provo Republican and Senate majority leader, which would make it easier for local government to issue bonds to help pay for environmental cleanups like the one needed for Anderson to develop the Geneva site. The measure, which had no dissenting votes, awaits action by Huntsman.
* SB183, another Killpack bill, would bar local governments from setting their own standards for wetlands, as Summit County did, to Anderson's dismay. The bill awaits the governor's signature.
* SB215 would set timetables for local planners to process development permits and would require them to balance other land-use factors with "a landowner's private property interests." The bill passed unanimously and awaits the governor's signature.
Hutchings defended the bills as good public policy and denied they served a special interest.
"These are laws that have general applicability," he said. "And that's what the Legislature does. It sets the rules."

Changing the rules

U.S. Steel long ago agreed to help clean up the land around the steel mill it operated for about 40 years.

Under the original contract with Geneva, it pledged to cover its share of still-undetermined costs, probably more than half the expense to remove heavy metals and other contaminants from the site. And, when Anderson bought the 1,700-acre lakeside site a few years ago, it assumed Geneva's responsibilities under the contract.

But Anderson has different ideas about how the land should be redeveloped and, as a result, how much cleanup is required. Because Anderson wants to put homes on the site, at least some of it will have to undergo a much more thorough cleanup, presumably at a much higher cost.

SB271 nixes a requirement that both parties must agree to the cleanup plan and lets the current owner, Anderson, proceed without regard to U.S. Steel's wishes. Thanks to SB271, that could mean U.S. Steel's costs could skyrocket.

"We want to be able to clean up the site and argue with U.S. Steel later," said Hutchings.
In bankruptcy papers, U.S. Steel indicated its cleanup share might be about $29 million, which would make Anderson's share of the cleanup about $10 million, he added.

"It's on the low end," Hutchings said. "The cleanup cost could be double, or triple, or even four or five times that."

That possibility was not mentioned by the bill's advocates at the Legislature as they pitched the bill in those final days of the 2007 Legislature.

In his brief appearance before the Transportation Committee, Emery asserted that the bill was unfair to U.S. Steel and suggested it was unconstitutional. But that's all the debate lawmakers heard.

"What we're trying to do is start work on this rather than have the previous landowner hold a development hostage on technicalities in perpetuity," said sponsoring Sen. Killpack, a member of the Senate leadership and Davis County Republican.

Passed unanimously by the Senate, the bill fast-tracked the next day to the House. There, another member of the Republican leadership team, House Majority Leader Dave Clark, rushed through presentation on the bill.

"The most important part is for the site to get cleaned up," he told House lawmakers.
"It's a good bill. It cleans things up. Thank you."


John said...

I laugh when people get worried about "special interest" running the legislature.

They have their own special interest.

Jeremy said...

Business as usual for the Republicans in Utah. Smug and self interested. They may get around to funding things important to the rest of us but it is usually after they have done a great job taking care of themselves. The sad thing is that no matter how often it gets brought up our doppy Republican voters keep putting these jokers into office. It sure can be disheartening.

Natalie said...

I read this post the day you put it up. I just barely got the title. So...

I know that they're getting money for nothing, but I hope they're NOT getting chicks for free. Or paying for them. Really, either way is BAD.