Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Questions surrounding the John Swallow controversy

Published: Sunday, Jan. 20 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Utah Attorney General John Swallow speaks out Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in his office at the state Capitol about allegations that he brokered a deal to stifle a federal probe into a St. George businessman.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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For months, Utah politicos have been asking in hushed tones, "Are you hearing stuff about John Swallow and do you think it's true?" Most chalked up the rumors to internal GOP or partisan sniping. But a huge bomb dropped last week when indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson alleged he solicited Swallow to bribe a U.S. senator. This shocking revelation, coming soon after Swallow was sworn in as Utah attorney general, is raising important questions:

Will Swallow resign or be forced from office? Can he survive this controversy?

Pignanelli: "It is almost always the cover-up rather than the event that causes trouble." — Howard Baker

Swallow can survive, but there is a big "if." To date, there is no evidence that Swallow violated any state or federal law outside of Johnson's statements, which are less than trustworthy. Swallow's recommendation that Johnson seek assistance from a member of Congress to help with Federal Trade Commission troubles was standard advice.

Notwithstanding the lack of criminal intent, Swallow (who is a friend) was monumentally foolish in trying to hide his relationship with Johnson and outside consulting services. In politics, such stupidity can only be remedied by massive bloodletting. Swallow can survive if he holds a press conference wherein he apologizes with great emotion and then literally opens his veins. He must endure hours of repetitive and nasty questions from reporters without defensive posturing.

Swallow should state that he was conned by Johnson and he will work to protect Utahns against such malfeasance. He must offer some explanation — and then sorrow — for his stranger activities of deathbed affidavits, moving personal assets, etc. Utahns will be open to his contrition. Swallow has less than a week to engage in public penance before the legislative session begins. After that, his fate will be in the hands of the Legislature — where little support exists.

Webb: From Barack Obama on down, politicians cultivate wealthy people and wealthy people cultivate politicians. That's a political fact of life in America, and nothing is going to change it, not even strict campaign contribution limits. Some of those wealthy friends, at some point, are going to get into trouble with government regulators or the law. It always happens.

The wealthy person then goes to his politician friend for help. What happens next marks the difference between a wise politician and a foolish one, because the friend in trouble is now a hot potato that must be handled very carefully.

Swallow didn't handle it wisely. He was not an elected official, but he was No. 2 in the attorney general's office, and he was campaigning to become attorney general. It's OK to give advice and refer an old friend to someone who might represent him. But to talk about money and to receive money for services (Swallow says the money was for other consulting services, but the timing and circumstances all look fishy) was very foolish.

In a court of law, we presume innocence until proved guilty. But in politics and in the court of public opinion, actions that are imprudent, even though not illegal, can destroy a career. Swallow's chance of surviving is less than 50 percent.

If Swallow does not leave soon, is the attorney general's office damaged and can Swallow's reputation be rehabilitated?

Pignanelli: To paraphrase Richard Nixon, Utahns need to know that their attorney general is not a crook. Swallow is not a crook — a fact he must convey to citizens through specific personal actions. He must immediately disengage from partisan wrangling, fundraising or any political activities and quietly pursue Utah's legal interests. This will restore morale to his office and respectability to his public image.

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