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In our opinion: Troubling donations

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 6 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Utah Attorney General John Swallow

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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The controversy surrounding indicted iWorks founder Jeremy Johnson's relationship with Utah Attorney General John Swallow focuses on possible illegalities that may have taken place. That's appropriate, but this episode also highlights the perils of unethical practices that are legal under Utah law.

Consider that Johnson donated tens of thousands of dollars to former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's re-election campaign at a time when both Johnson and iWorks were under active investigation by the state Division of Consumer Protection. Not long after the donations were made, the investigation concluded with no charges filed against Johnson or iWorks. These facts are not in dispute, and they have repeatedly been brought to Shurtleff's attention.

In response, Shurtleff has adamantly denied that campaign dollars had any bearing on his prosecutorial discretion, and that he went after several campaign donors regardless of the financial support they provided him. He has also rightly noted that it is legal to solicit campaign donations from parties being investigated by the Attorney General.

He is correct; it is legal. But should it be?

In politics, barring some kind of signed confession, a quid pro quo relationship between campaign dollars and policy decisions is almost impossible to prove. Often, such impropriety is more imagined than genuine. It is entirely natural for like-minded individuals to provide financial support for candidates who reflect their values and priorities. So when elected officials act in a donor's best interests, they aren't necessarily doing so for nefarious purposes.

But when donors with legal trouble are free to fund the campaign of the state's chief law enforcement officer, the ethical pitfalls are painfully obvious. Reasonable people can conclude that someone in trouble with the law has an ulterior motive when they fork over large sums of cash to the lawmen. When we turn a blind eye to this practice, we taint the entire process with the appearance of corruption, even if all parties involved have nothing but the best of intentions.

Stricter rules could avoid even the appearance of impropriety. They could also have prevented Swallow, when he was deputy attorney general, from working to solicit lobbying money from an individual facing legal challenges. In this session, legislators ought to draw clear lines that would protect both politicians and the public alike. When it comes to financing the attorney general's campaigns, it's time to eliminate the disparity between what is right and what the law allows.

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