SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah House members voted Wednesday to create a nine-person committee to investigate the alleged wrongdoings of Attorney General John Swallow.
State representatives voted 69-3 to move ahead with an investigation of the AG in a special one-day session of the House. Top of Utah representatives Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, and Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, were two of the votes against the resolution. Both wanted more specific direction for the group in its fact-finding mission.
In moving forward with the probe, House members also created rules for the committee and also set a termination date for the panel. Most of focus of a rules committee meeting at the beginning of the day, and debate on the floor was the makeup of the committee and potential implications of the party makeup of participants. The extent of how far back a probe of Swallow's alleged misconduct was also debated extensively.
Swallow has been hit with allegations of impropriety since he assumed office in January. He is the subject of a federal investigation after indicted Utah businessman Jeremy Johnson accused him of arranging to derail a Federal Trade Commission probe by bribing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada.
Swallow is also the target of complaints filed at the Utah State Bar Association. One complaint alleges Swallow violated attorney-client privilege during conversations with a business owner cited for breaking telemarketing laws. The attorney general has denied any wrongdoing and has suggested he is eager to tell his side of the story. Six separate investigative groups are conducting probes into allegations against Swallow, including the Davis County attorney's office.
Who hears that side of the story is a decision left to House Speaker Becky Lockhart who is charged with the task of picking committee members and selecting a chair for the group. She said she hopes to have the names of people to serve on the committee by July 17, when interim meetings of the Legislature are planned. She said she has had several people come forward to volunteer to be on the fact-finding group. She plans to consult with GOP House leaders and with Rep. Jennifer, D-Salt Lake City, about appointments to the group before releasing that information.
Lockhart also told members of the media she hopes to get the committee process moving in a timely fashion, maybe as early as August. The group will have the ability to call witnesses and issue subpoenas. She said there is discussion going on about some circumstances where a witness may need special protection, but she suggested most of the committee meetings will be open.
By state law, the House has a fact-finding role in any investigation that could result in impeachment, while the Senate plays a decision making role.
Lockhart and other GOP leaders were clear the committee does not have any role beyond fact-finding.
"What we're talking about is a special investigative committee, not impeachment. We're not talking about impeachment," Lockhart said. She said information generated by the committee could lead House members to generate impeachment proceedings, but that is something the Legislature will determine later on.
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, stressed the committee is being set up because lawmakers are not comfortable getting their information from secondary sources about alleged misconduct about Swallow.
"We need to own facts. If we are going to move forward with anything n the future, I want to own them, I don't want to hear them from the media, I want to know for certain. We should own those facts," Dee said.
There have been only two impeachment cases in Utah's history. One, in 1935, was initiated when the secretary of state was unable to account for $25,000 to $28,000, but the official was exonerated after a week. The second case, in 2003, was initiated when a judge faced a criminal charge, only to have the judge in question resign before the process went very far.
Lockhart described the House vote in support of the resolution as a clear sign of lawmakers' desire to move quickly to deal with allegations against Swallow and to deal with matters of public trust.
Oda stressed he wants to see the allegations dealt with too, but voted against the resolution because he didn't think the scope of the investigation was well defined. He also wanted to hear legal counsel from attorneys who don't work for the Legislature on the possible implications of different moves and guidelines.
Financial considerations were also discussed briefly in setting up the committee. A fiscal note with the group suggests a probe may cost anywhere from $500,000 to $750,000. Other lawmakers have suggested the costs may actually go higher, once everything settles.
The committee is expected to hire a full-time investigator as well as outside counsel, as part of its fact-finding mission.
Lockhart insists there are financial concerns, but issues of trust are more important than what it costs at this point.
"What we are talking about is public trust. I don't think you can put a price on public trust. It doesn't mean we'll spend whatever, but we will need to use resources we have to do the right thing," the speaker said.
The speaker also bristled at the use of the words witch-hunt or lynching in regards to the investigation. "I find those terms offensive to a legislative branch of government doing its constitutional duty," she said.