SALT LAKE CITY -- A House committee's probe into allegations of misconduct by Attorney General John Swallow will take months, not weeks, and could end up costing taxpayers millions before it is finished, the chairman of the legislative committee said Tuesday in the group's first meeting.
"We have to do this right. Believe me, we're going to watch the costs," said Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, chairman of the special committee. He declined to specify how long the investigation may take.
Estimated costs for the probe have been run from $500,000 to $3 million, but could actually exceed that ceiling, said John Fellows, general counsel to the Legislature.
The group's first meeting was described as table-setting and included a review of the group's investigative powers, including detailed accounts of subpoena powers and the potential of granting immunity to some witnesses, a discussion of how the process will unfold and a brief discussion about costs.
The meeting took less than an hour.
The group's next move is expected later this week, when outside counsel to conduct the probe will be hired.
A panel of five members, including Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, interviewed five out-of-state law firms Tuesday and is expected to interview four today and one more Thursday.
Fellows said officials will meet with the chosen firm to determine whether it is necessary to also hire a private investigative firm.
The Legislature has granted special authority for a law firm and private investigator firm to operate in Utah without a state license, as part of the investigation.
Private Utah law firms can charge $300 to $500 an hour, Fellows said, and it could cost as much as $1,000 an hour for special counsel to look into the allegations.
State officials are expected to negotiate a contract with the winning firm once the announcement has been made later this week.
"This investigation will cost money, there is no way around that," Fellows said.
He said one of the key provisions in moving forward will be for him to work with the special counsel to determine and receive approval for expenses every two weeks the investigation is ongoing.
Adding to the potential investigation cost is the possibility of litigation. Fellows said precedent from other states shows litigation was used to slow or block the probes during the process.
"Whatever plan we have can all be thrown topsy-turvy if someone files a lawsuit. I don't want the committee to have any illusions. It's entirely possible during this process, we'll be in court."
Still, officials seemed pleased the committee has started the process.
House Minority Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, likes the outline the committee heard. "It's absolutely essential we are thorough and are good stewards of the public dollar."
Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, said he was glad the committee spent time reviewing a general guideline for what will follow. He expects the investigation to take a long time.
Fellows said it could be November or December before the committee is in a position to hear from witnesses.
Dunnigan said the meetings will be as transparent as possible, but Fellows said there is no rule requiring the committee to take public comment. Dunnigan said the group would welcome public comment in written form.
Officials have done their best to make the point that due process in looking at allegations against Swallow will take a long time.
At the end of the process, the committee is expected to approve a report for the Legislature to consider. There is also room for a minority report, should people on the committee not agree.
Fellows stressed anew that the group's mission is fact-finding, not impeachment. The group is even limited in making recommendations at the end of the process.
Swallow is the subject of six separate investigations and faces allegations of misconduct ranging from extortion and bribery to violating attorney-client privilege with a business owner cited for breaking telemarketing laws.
The attorney general has denied any wrongdoing.