Many of you have likely followed the nearly continuous stream of allegations that have surrounded Attorney General John Swallow for the past few months. The daily deluge of accusations has concerned me for sometime. The reports of bribery, extortion, and intimidation by our state's top law enforcement official are very serious and troubling. However, the reported witnesses or victims of these actions have come primarily from people whose character and motives are also suspect because of their own criminal actions.
How does one get to the truth of who did what and when if you aren't sure which parties can be believed and your only source is the media? For a time I was comforted by the fact that the FBI, U.S. Department of Justice, Lieutenant Governor's Office, Salt Lake County Attorney, Davis County Attorney, and Utah State Bar were investigating. These are all institutions in which I have trust and I believe have the investigative know-how to get at the truth. Unfortunately, nearly six months has come and gone with no findings yet released by any investigative entity.
Further, there is no guarantee that any of these investigatory bodies will share what they learn with the Legislature. While my faith in the investigative bodies remains strong, I became concerned about a new, perhaps even more serious issue with the situation surrounding our embattled attorney general. Ours is a system that depends on the trust of the people in their public institutions in order for government to govern. People accept the laws, judicial decisions and general rules of society because they believe government is evenhanded, fair, and subject to the laws it passes.
Public trust in the attorney general has eroded significantly since the allegations of bribery, extortion and intimidation became public. The degree of public distrust is a factor that can't be ignored, especially in a law enforcement capacity.
While I am a firm believer that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and ought to have their day in court to publicly face accusers; I have had to weigh that belief against the hundreds of concerned constituents who have contacted me in recent months about the attorney general. You can never be satisfied with your opinions and you can never be content with what you think you know about a person or situation until you have all the facts. The Legislature and the public have had only the "facts" presented in the media, which by almost any reading are fairly damning and highly concerning. With calls coming from diverse corners for the attorney general to resign and the Legislature to begin impeachment proceedings, House leadership called the House Republican Caucus this past week to a meeting to learn more about our options, powers and duties.
Utah doesn't have a recall provision as some other states do. Instead we have an impeachment process that is similar to the process at the federal level. The basic outline is that the process would start in the House of Representatives. If two-thirds vote to convene, then the investigatory process would begin. At the end of this investigation phase, two-thirds of the members voting for any article of impeachment (articles in a political setting are essentially the equivalent of charges in a criminal trial setting) would trigger the next phase in which the Senate joins the process. The offending officer would be suspended from office while the Senate conducts a trial and hands down a judgment. In the simplest terms it is the duty of the House to investigate and the duty of the Senate to conduct the trial and judgment. The Utah Legislature has never had to conduct such a proceeding before so we would be building the process as we went.
The House Republican Caucus met for nearly four hours of discussions and briefing from our legislative general counsel. The universal view from the caucus was one of grave concern, yet we felt we were operating in an information vacuum. While the media has a role to play in informing the public, not everything it reports is fact.
An impeachment proceeding is an incredibly serious process. It isn't a tool one employs lightly. Every one of us is responsible for the reputation and culture of our public offices, so it is imperative that we take this process very seriously. After all, some of the charges that would be a prelude to impeachment are charges that can only apply to public officials. The phrase "high crimes" doesn't refer to serious crimes as our modern vernacular might imply, but rather it refers to those punishable offenses that only apply to "high" persons, essentially to public officials who because of their official status are under special obligations of trust that the general pubic are not.
Because we are in uncharted territory in having no state precedents to follow when it comes to impeachment proceedings, the House Republican Caucus chose to craft a course that will give us the information we need to make more informed decisions on such weighty matters. The House will convene for an extraordinary session on July 3 (the first time every in our state history) to appoint a special bipartisan investigative committee. The committee will have the power to subpoena witnesses, put them under oath, gather documents, and have a budget to hire attorneys or investigators.
A final report will be submitted to the entire House for consideration. As they say, information is power. With verifiable information finally available, the House of Representatives will be able to make a determination on whether impeachment proceedings are warranted. What is called for in this process is statesmanship, not politics. We want to assure the public that their continued trust in public institutions is justified and that all public officials are held to the highest moral and ethical standards.
Brad Dee is the House majority leader. He represents House District 11, which covers portions of Davis and Weber counties.