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Restoring trust to the office drives Republican attorney general debate

By Kyle Dunphey - Utah News Dispatch | Jun 12, 2024
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The attorney general GOP primary debate between Derek Brown, Frank Mylar and Rachel Terry was held at the KUED Studio on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.
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Rachel Terry speaks during the attorney general GOP primary debate between Derek Brown and Frank Mylar at the KUED Studio on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.
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Derek Brown speaks during the attorney general GOP primary debate with Frank Mylar and Rachel Terry at the KUED Studio on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.
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Frank Mylar answers questions during a media scrum after the attorney general GOP primary debate with Derek Brown and Rachel Terry at the KUED Studio on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.
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The attorney general GOP primary debate between Derek Brown, Frank Mylar and Rachel Terry took place at the KUED Studio on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.

As the state's top lawyer, Utah's next attorney general will have a number of responsibilities.

But during Tuesday's primary debate among the three Republicans vying for the job, one responsibility seemed to trump them all -- how will each candidate restore trust to the office?

Utah's last three attorneys general ended their tenure entangled in scandal. Mark Shurtleff, who served from 2001 to 2013, was charged with bribery and accepting gifts, but those charges were later dropped; John Swallow, who served in 2013, was accused of extorting money and favors from a wealthy businessman who had reached a plea deal with the office, and was acquitted at trial; and Sean Reyes, who decided not to run for reelection, continues to face scrutiny for his relationship with embattled anti-trafficking activist Tim Ballard.

For GOP candidates Derek Brown, Frank Mylar and Rachel Terry, an underlying theme in many of their talking points Tuesday was bringing more transparency to the Utah Attorney General's Office, with all three advocating for increased scrutiny on the position, strong public records laws and a focus on conflicts of interest.

Mylar described himself as "the most seasoned candidate" with 36 years of experience as an attorney, 12 of them working in the Utah Attorney General's Office. Terry currently serves as the director of the Utah Division of State Risk Management and has been an attorney for about 20 years, including two with the attorney general. Brown is the former chair of the Utah Republican Party, a former state representative and former deputy chief of staff and Utah state director for GOP Sen. Mike Lee.

Restoring the reputation of the office

Terry said the biggest concern she hears from constituents is how the office has been run in the past -- as she put it, "making sure we have someone in the office who doesn't bring scandal." She levied some criticism at Brown, who has worked for groups like Meta, arguing that could be a conflict of interest with the state's ongoing litigation against trade groups that represent the social media company.

"When he was representing Facebook, he wasn't representing the children of Utah," Terry said.

In response, Brown said he doesn't represent the company anymore, so there is no conflict. Meanwhile, he said a "critical aspect" to restoring trust to the office is increasing transparency.

"You don't just follow the law. And you don't just do what's ethical. There's a higher standard, which is reaching out and having people proactively do things to create trust," Brown said.

Mylar said issues with past attorneys general stem from their donors during the election. Mylar doesn't have large donors, he said. "Nobody owns me going into the office ... I can actually be independent," he said, claiming he doesn't see the position as a "stepping stone" to other, more powerful jobs.

Avoiding conflicts of interest

As attorney general, Mylar said he would hire staff with the sole purpose to look for conflicts of interest -- he also railed against hiring outside law firms to litigate on the state's behalf, describing the "millions that the attorney general pours into the private sector."

Terry said she has worked on avoiding conflicts of interest for years and has faith in the investigators and attorneys currently working in the office. She also said her experience working for the state makes her uniquely qualified.

"My only client for the last 10 years has been the people in the State of Utah. So I won't bring any personal conflicts to this role," Terry said.

Brown touted his work for prestigious law firms, which taught him how to avoid conflicts.

"You probably don't want an attorney general who doesn't have that kind of background, who doesn't have conflicts, because it means they haven't really been hired by the kind of people that are bringing the real cases," Brown said.

Brown also cited the ongoing legislative audit of the Utah Attorney General's Office, which he said could act as a handbook on how to avoid some of the conduct that brought scandal to the position.

Priorities as attorney general

Brown listed three priorities: protecting the state's most vulnerable, which includes children and people in Utah "who are most in need of help"; fighting federal overreach, from public land policy to education; and reforming the Attorney General's Office to make it more transparent. 

"This needs to be the most effective, most prestigious, most well-run law firm in the state of Utah," he said.

Mylar said one of his top priorities is reinstating "what Title IX is supposed to be. I'm going to defend women's sports, bathrooms and showers without exception." Mylar also said he will fight the federal government on perceived overreach, while taking a more hardline stance on immigration and undocumented people arriving in Utah.

And Terry joined Brown in her push to make the office more transparent, while stressing that the state should aggressively prosecute violent and drug-related criminal offenses. Like Brown and Mylar, she also emphasized the importance of fighting federal overreach, which is impacting the state's public land, energy and schools.

Should the attorney general's calendar be a public record?

With Reyes currently suing to keep his calendar secret, arguing it is not a public document, the candidates on Tuesday vowed to do the opposite.

In response to a question whether their calendars should be considered a public record, Mylar said "absolutely." Not only should the attorney general's calendar be public, but the state's public record law -- the Government Records Access and Management Act -- should be strengthened.

"The public should not be put through some difficulty to try to get public records," Mylar said, advocating for the elimination of fees on public record requests.

Terry said she's looking forward to seeing the ruling in Reyes' calendar case, while promising to disclose her own calendar if she wins. The state's public record law is an important part of government and fighting corruption, she said, promising to be the "most transparent, accessible and responsive attorney general you've ever had."

Brown followed suit, vowing to also release his calendar, which he considers a public record. Transparency, Brown said, is "the way to create an environment of trust."

"The press just wants to know what's going on. The public just wants to know what's going on. The way you facilitate that is you create an open environment where things like calendars are made available and people know what you're doing," Brown said.

Biden versus Trump, Cox versus Lyman

Though candidates appeared unified on most issues during the event put on by the Utah Debate Commission and moderated by Glen Mills, communications director for the Utah Department of Corrections, a discrepancy emerged late in the debate when asked who they were voting for in the upcoming election.

Each candidate pledged support for former President Donald Trump. However, Mylar said Gov. Spencer Cox vetoing a 2022 bill to ban transgender girls from high school sports is enough for him to support Blanding Republican Rep. Phil Lyman.

Brown, who earned the endorsement from Cox, said he would support the current governor, citing his conservative track record.

And Terry said she could not comment on the gubernatorial race because she currently works under Cox, and an endorsement would be "inappropriate."

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.

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