Utah pols ponder effects of AG arrests

Tuesday , July 15, 2014 - 9:49 PM

While Tuesday’s arrests of former Utah Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow — both Republicans — took lengthy investigations to the next legal level, the effect of those arrests on the state’s lopsided political landscape remains to be seen.

“Obviously this is quite a striking development. I can’t think of anything comparable in recent Utah history,” said Matthew Burbank, an associate political science professor at the University of Utah.

“That puts this out of the realm of what we usually think about in terms of likely consequences.”

Shurtleff — a popular three-term attorney general, author and cancer survivor who had at one time considered running for the U.S. Senate — appointed Swallow as his chief deputy in 2009.

In 2012, Shurtleff did not seek a fourth term and Swallow sailed to an easy victory to assume his mentor’s position. But less than a year into office, Swallow resigned amid serious allegations.

The combined 23 counts with which Shurtleff and Swallow were charged Tuesday ranged from receiving or soliciting bribes, accepting gifts, tampering with witnesses and/or evidence, obstructing justice and participating in a pattern of unlawful conduct.

While that muck could taint other GOP candidates and officeholders, Burbank suggested that most voters will likely view their alleged behavior as an aberration and “not a normal part of what Republicans do.”

While Shurtleff derided the extensive investigation conducted by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, a Democrat, and Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings, a Republican, as politically motivated by Gill in particular, others had full-throated praise for their combined effort.

“I can’t speak enough to their quality of character. It could have been such a nasty, awful spectacle,” said Turner Bitton, former vice chairman of the Weber County Democratic Party and current campaign manager for Donna McAleer, who is challenging six-term Republican incumbent Rob Bishop in Utah’s 1st Congressional District.

McAleer echoed Bitton’s sentiment: “The most important thing coming out of this case is that you had a Republican working with a Democrat in a nonpartisan or bipartisan way to be efficient, effective and thorough in their investigations and prosecutions.”

Bitton also credited Utah’s Republican-dominated House with having the courage to conduct its own investigation of Swallow.

“I would say that the number one fallout from all this would be the desire of Utahns to move away from the pay-to-play type of campaign donations and politics,” Bitton added. “People are tired of special interests dominating their government, and they really just want good people elected to office.”

Noall Knighton, who heads the Weber County Republican Party, also had hearty praise for Utah’s House Republicans for stepping up and funding its $4 million probe.

“I don’t think it will hurt our Republican (legislators) in Weber County,” Knighton said of any possible blowback. “They stood up as public officials for the investigation and put their political alignment aside.”

Knighton also praised the press for being a watchdog.

“I think the press did a fair and good job all the way through, and I don’t think Shurtleff and Swallow have been treated unfairly,” Knighton said.

Peter Corroon, former Salt Lake County mayor and current chairman of the state Democratic Party, said he would like to see a shift in voter participation and some real reforms installed to prevent “more of the same” in the future.

“Hopefully our state Legislature will put into place some checks to the wild west campaign finance we have now where there really are no rules,” Corroon said. “And I hope it sends a message that we need a two-party system with checks and balances, and that our citizens need to be more involved in elections.”

Charles Stormont — the Democrat running against Republican Sean Reyes, who was appointed as Utah’s AG after Swallow resigned — hopes the arrests spur structural reform within the state AG’s office, where he has served as an assistant AG for the past six years.

“We need to remove the isolation of attorneys in the office, and create an environment where collaboration is the norm so that no public servant can ever be subjected to intimidation by anyone,” Stormont said. “One of the problems we’ve heard about over the past many months is that many people had concerns but nowhere to turn — and we need to change that.” 

In a statement Tuesday, AG Reyes said that since his appointment last December, his new executive team and many respected leaders throughout the office “have worked unceasingly to create a culture change and restore public trust.”

Kirk Jowers, who directs the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, also oversaw former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s Commission on Strengthening Utah’s Democracy.

“I think that campaign finance and ethics reform should get more attention because of this,” Jowers said, noting “the world has changed since the commission made its findings on campaign finance.”

Utah law permits unlimited individual and corporate contributions to candidates, and when it comes to the Attorney General’s office, that sets the stage for “almost impossible choices,” Jowers said.

“This isn’t an office like House or Senate where people give (to a candidate) because of love of country or policy,” Jowers said. “It’s an office where people give because they’ll need favors from that office.”

While few would question a $5,000 gift having much influence on a legal decision, a $100,000 contribution sends an entirely different signal, Jowers added.

“I’ve always told elected officials that this (reform) is more for them than anyone else,” Jowers said, recommending that they eliminate the gray area and could then learn to thrive within transparent and clear rules.

If anything, Tuesday’s arrests will remind elected officials “why they got into office and why it’s necessary to maintain the highest standards and to make themselves beyond reproach in serving the public,“ said Carol McNamara, director of Weber State University’s Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics and Public Service,

But Republicans could prove to be the most zealous in distancing themselves from the behaviors in question.

“Most care about their reputations,” McNamara added, “and when a fellow Republican seems to undermine the party, I think they’re the ones who are most betrayed by it.”

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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