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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.

Webb: It's hard to see how Utah's chief prosecutor can be effective, especially cracking down on white collar crime, when he is under this cloud. This story will continue to dribble out. We won't know if unlawful activities occurred until a federal investigation is concluded, which could take a long time. To salvage his reputation, Swallow will need to reveal every detail of everything that happened, frankly and humbly acknowledge mistakes, and ask forgiveness. He could go further, refunding all campaign donations above $10,000, refusing to accept future donations above $10,000, and promising to sever ties with individuals, businesses and industries seeking to influence him.

What mistakes and shrewd moves has Swallow made?

Pignanelli: Swallow was smart to ask for an investigation within days of the original release, for he has not committed any crime. But, Swallow has known for months that reporters possessed elements of the story. By preemptively exposing this during the holidays, he could have controlled the message and outcome. But, by remaining in the shadows the media continues to examine every detail of anyone within six degrees of Swallow. "Hunkering down" is no longer a viable tactic in 21st-century politics.

Webb: From a political perspective, Swallow was effective in preventing this matter from blowing up before the election, although then he could have blamed it on his political enemies. Calling for an investigation was a no-brainer. Assuming a scandal will blow over is always a big mistake. Remember, a U.S. president was brought down over a third-rate burglary.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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