Amid conflict of interest issues, House Speaker Greg Hughes resigns from inland port board

SALT LAKE CITY — In wake of revelations that he has ties to properties that disqualify him from being a Utah Inland Port Authority board member, House Speaker Greg Hughes announced Tuesday that he will not be serving on the board.

While acting as a guest host for a KNRS radio show Tuesday, Hughes announced he will be reversing his self-appointment to the Inland Port Authority board.

“I will not be the inland port enemies’ best weapon,” Hughes said on the talk show. “And I’m seeing a trend here.”

Hughes said he appointed himself to the board because “I believe we have to get (the inland port) right,” but he acknowledged his self-appointment came with “backlash.”

“People were upset,” the speaker said.

So instead, one of the speaker’s right-hand men, House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, will be serving in his place, according to Hughes.

Gibson sponsored the final version of SB234, the law Hughes championed to create an inland port in Utah that sailed through the House and the Senate with little debate on the second-to-last day of the 2018 session.

Hughes’ announcement comes less than a week after reports that he is registered with at least eight companies that own land within 5 miles of the inland port. SB234’s conflict of interest provisions prohibit board members from owning property, other than their personal residence, within the restricted boundary.

Hughes’ properties include a batch of apartment developments along 200 West in Salt Lake City; the Holden Apartments at 854 S. 200 West; the Woodruff apartments at 235 S. 200 East; and a sliver of land at 564 N. 800 West, owned by an expired limited liability company Wilkeshire Homes LLC, according to Utah business records.

Hughes said he didn’t know about the conflict of interest issues with the properties until the day after the Utah Inland Port’s first meeting last week, where he initially raised concerns about “ambiguity” in SB234.

The day of the port authority’s first meeting, Hughes hadn’t yet submitted his conflict of interest disclosure form, calling for more “specificity” in SB234. He and the Legislature’s general counsel, John Fellows, said it could be argued some board members could have conflicts of interest because the language in the law was too broad.

That day, Hughes responded to reporters’ questions about whether he had conflicts of interest by saying, “I could, sure.”

But Hughes said last week there’s nothing “nefarious” about him owning apartments near the inland port jurisdiction, noting that if he wanted to be personally involved with the inland port, he wouldn’t be a board member.

“If you wanted to do something as a free citizen and not a public servant, it would be a lot easier to do than being on a board,” Hughes said on the radio Tuesday. “There’s no secret sauce going on here or proprietary information. We all know where the port is. So that little narrative of profit is actually absurd.”

Hughes said there were some “unintended consequences” of SB234. He noted the board member conflict of interest limitations “captured more than just me,” referring to Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser’s appointee, Sen. Don Ipson, who resigned from the board because he owned some property within the port authority’s restricted area.

So the speaker continued his calls to change SB234’s conflict of interest language, saying it could be “stronger and more specific.”

Gov. Gary Herbert, according to deputy chief of staff Paul Edwards, has no interest in calling a special session to adjust SB234’s conflict of interest language, saying such a change would be “inappropriate” and would “harm the public trust” of the port authority.

After Hughes’ announcement Tuesday, Herbert commended the Draper Republican’s decision to remove himself from the board.

“We appreciate Speaker Hughes’ desire to have a successful inland port in Utah,” Herbert said. “We respect his decision to step aside from the Inland Port Authority board at this time.”

Herbert also called Gibson a strong choice to serve in Hughes’ place.

“We look forward to his contributions on this team effort to better connect Utah to global commerce,” the governor said.

Alliance for a Better Utah also applauded the speaker’s decision Tuesday.

“We’re pleased to see Speaker Hughes following the letter of the law by resigning from his self-appointed position on the Inland Port Authority,” said Chase Thomas, the group’s policy and advocacy counsel, in a prepared statement. “Laws informing ethical obligations and protecting against conflicts of interest are of utmost importance in maintaining public trust in our institutions of government.”

 

Read this article from the Deseret News in its entirety here

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