A Chastened Chaffetz Should Learn from Mo Udall

Image obtained from DonkeyHotey through Creative Commons.

Jason Chaffetz was recently tasked by angry constituents to “do [his] job.” He should look to fellow Mormon and former congressman Mo Udall for some ideas. 

At a speech before the Brookings Institution on January 11, 2017, the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, Jr., stated that Donald Trump’s plan to avoid conflicts of interest was “meaningless.” This assessment is borne out by the facts – Trump’s business assets have not been placed in a blind trust, his sons will oversee the operations of the Trump Organization, and he has not divested himself of his holdings. This will make it painfully simple for the President to make decisions that will benefit his own bottom line at the expense of the national interest. The day following Director Shaub’s publication of these “inconvenient truths,” Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee , sent him a threatening letter criticizing him for “blurring the line between public relations and official ethics guidance,” hinting that the Oversight Committee might not reauthorize the Ethics Office, and demanding that Shaub make himself available for an “interview” with Oversight Committee staff.

By engaging in heavy-handed intimidation of a government ethics watchdog, Chaffetz, a Mormon, is defying the guidance of Mormon leaders who have emphasized “the need for honesty and integrity . . . in the conduct of government officials.” He is also shirking the legacy of generations of Mormon politicians who have adhered to the highest standards of ethical conduct. Perhaps Chaffetz could use a refresher on what it means to be an ethical Mormon in public office. If so, he can look to the example set by Arizona Congressman Mo Udall.

Mo Udall was a giant of a man, in both stature and integrity. Measuring a towering 6 feet 5 inches, Udall was born and raised in the frontier town of St. Johns, AZ, a location in Arizona’s White Mountains which witnesses cold, unforgiving winters and harsh, scorching summers. His father, Levi Udall, was a forward-looking lawyer and judge who wrote the Arizona Supreme Court opinion that granted Native Americans living on reservations the right to vote. Levi was also a long-serving member of the Mormon Church’s lay clergy, and it is likely that the ecclesiastical values he espoused, in addition to his relatively progressive views on race, played a seminal role in shaping Mo’s outlook on life.

During WW II, Udall was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army and at one point was put in charge of a squadron of African-American soldiers at Lake Charles, LA. He was known for treating his men with dignity and respect, basic courtesies often not afforded them by other white officers. Even though he wasn’t yet a trained lawyer, he also served as defense counsel for African-American GIs who were being court-martialed and obtained an acquittal for one of them who had been unjustly accused by a racist white sheriff of attempted murder. Later, when he was stationed in the Pacific, he advocated for desegregating the military in letters sent to a veterans’ group and FDR.

After his military service, Udall returned to the University of Arizona (which he had attended before the war) where he studied law, was elected student body president, and forcibly integrated the Wildcats’ dining hall, which black students had been forbidden from using. After a few detours (he briefly played professional basketball for a Denver-based team) he earned his law degree and began practicing law in Tucson, AZ, where he was eventually elected as the county attorney (chief prosecutor) of Pima County. Later, when JFK nominated his brother, Stewart, to be his Secretary of the Interior, Mo was appointed to fill his vacated seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, a seat that he held until he resigned for health reasons in 1991.

As a congressman, Mo was unabashed in his drive for ethics reform. He introduced legislation requiring representatives to publicly disclose their personal finances (something that he had been doing voluntarily since 1964) and campaign expenditures and contributions. He was also one of the drafters of the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971, a law that helped minimize money’s impact on politics by limiting political advertising expenditures. This drive to lessen the corrupting influence of money was later expressed in the Clean Elections Act of 1974, through which he tried, but failed, to mandate government financing of congressional races.

In addition to his ethics workload, Udall was unafraid of taking on unpopular causes. After receiving letters from Vietnam vet Ron Ridenhour, Udall and other Arizona politicians encouraged military authorities to investigate allegations of the My Lai massacre, an investigation which led to the conviction of one of the atrocity’s perpetrators, William Calley, and which spurred the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of Seymour Hersh on the incident. Although he haled from a district that, at the time, was only 3% African-American, he shepherded northern and western representatives into voting for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Finally, he took on entrenched interests in his own party by advocating for postal service reform in 1971 and for de-escalation in Vietnam in 1967.

In contrast to Mo Udall’s honesty and courage, Jason Chaffetz has shown himself to be a political chameleon, who, to borrow a favorite Mormon scripture, “wavereth . . . like a wave of the sea.” Besides his sycophantic attempts to curry favor with Trump by harassing Director Shaub, he flip-flopped in his support for the Donald, saying after the appalling “Access Hollywood” tape that he could “no longer in good conscience endorse [Trump] for president” only to walk back this statement by later saying “I am voting for him.” Further, he has stonewalled attempts to investigate Trump’s numerous potential conflicts of interest, despite 65% of Utah voters supporting an investigation.

Mo Udall’s life is a model of commitment to justice, fairness, and ethics in government. Jason Chaffetz has shown that he is willing to ignore ethical breaches if it advances his political career. He could learn a lot from Mo’s example.

About Gary Ashcroft

Gary works on national security issues for a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. He has a J.D. from the University of Georgia School of Law and a B.A. in International Relations (with a Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic emphasis) from BYU. He is an active member of the LDS Church.