SALT LAKE CITY -- A Utah lawmaker is being criticized for a letter he wrote on behalf of a convicted sex offender, with one government watchdog group claiming it was inappropriate and an abuse of power.
Rep. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, confirmed he wrote a letter about Eric Ray, 31, who was recently convicted in Provo's Fourth District Court and sentenced to 1-to-15 years in prison for forcible sex abuse. He was accused of having inappropriate contact with a then-15-year-old girl back in 2008.
Ray was once an intern for Harper, the lawmaker wrote in his letter, which was made public by the Alliance for a Better Utah.
"Here is a sitting legislator, standing up for a convicted sex offender and turning his back on the victim at the same time," said Alliance for a Better Utah executive director Maryann Martindale. "We felt like it was an inappropriate use of his position to try to saw the judge in his determination of a sentence."
In the letter, Harper called Ray "very dependable and reliable."
"I believe he can use his knowledge and experience to help others again and is ready to right his errors and become again a positive and contributing member of society," the lawmaker wrote. "I expect great things from him in the future and that he will do good in the community and in his future life and work."
The letter is signed "Wayne Harper, Representative, District 43."
Martindale said she takes issue with Harper using his legislative title in the letter, that was submitted to the judge sentencing Ray.
"I think Representative Harper was probably well intentioned," she said. "The problem is, I think sometimes they forget that when they sign their name as 'Representative Wayne Harper,' it carries a weight that is different than 'Citizen Wayne Harper' that happens to know this person."
Harper told FOX 13 he wrote the letter at the request of Ray's mother, but insists he had no idea it would wind up before the judge who sentenced his former intern.
"It was not intended to cross the line of separation of powers," Harper said.
Harper said he is frequently requested to write letters on behalf of interns applying for law school or for jobs. He said his letter was merely an assessment of his intern "at that time."
"The judge is going to do what he's going to do," Harper said. "I'm fully supportive of the judge."
Harper is not the first politician to write a letter on behalf of an accused criminal. First District Congressman Rob Bishop wrote a letter last year on behalf of Dr. Dewey MacKay, who was sentenced to federal prison time related to improperly prescribing painkillers. So did Sen. Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City.
After getting wind of Harper's letter, Martindale said her group sent a letter to the judge overseeing Ray's case, expressing concern about Harper's letter. Deputy Utah County Attorney Craig Johnson told FOX 13 the judge disregarded both letters.
Martindale said that's fine with her.
"That's the perfect outcome," she said.
Ray faces a re-trial on two counts of forcible sex abuse, which the jury at his original trial deadlocked on.