In a legislative committee meeting one week ago, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, tried to ask Utah Attorney General John Swallow a question that related directly to the scandal brewing in Swallow's office. King wanted to know whether Swallow was "familiar with state administrative rules regarding outside employment and conflicts of interest."
The committee had just heard Swallow complain that his office was losing attorneys to higher paying jobs. One of the allegations surrounding Swallow is that, when he was chief deputy attorney general, he accepted a $23,500 consulting fee from someone who was trying to influence the federal investigation of a St. George businessman. One could naturally draw a connection between low salaries and the perceived need to acquire money from questionable outside sources.
Unfortunately, the committee's chairman said the question was out of order and that it was more appropriate for a court of law.
But it was exactly the kind of question Swallow needs to answer to the public — one of several pointed questions that demand an explanation, regardless of any pending federal investigation. It also serves as an example of how everything Utah's attorney general does, even making a simple salary request for his attorneys, will be under suspicion so long as a cloud remains over his office.
People who work in the private sector can easily understand that, should they be accused of a crime or unethical behavior, their employer would demand answers regardless of whether the district attorney's office or some other agency was conducting an investigation. The attorney general works for the people of the state of Utah. His employers, the people, need an explanation for the serious allegations against Swallow and the evidence that so far has been made public.
Swallow should answer questions concerning his relationship with Jeremy Johnson, the St. George businessman who faces federal fraud charges in relation to his business, iWorks. The federal government has seized millions of dollars in assets belonging to Johnson. Swallow has acknowledge that, while serving as chief deputy attorney general, he introduced Johnson to a friend with connections to federal lobbyists who might be able to influence the federal investigation. Swallow needs to answer why he would do such a thing for someone accused of defrauding the public. As an employee of the attorney general's office, he was supposed to be the public's attorney.
Swallow later received $23,500 from the person Johnson eventually paid to help him. Swallow claims the money was not connected to that effort but was for consulting he did on a cement plant project in Nevada. However, a recording has been released of a conversation in which Swallow asks Johnson what would be wrong about Johnson paying him to put a deal together. Swallow needs to explain the context of the recorded conversation and why the consulting fee paid to him originally came from the money Johnson had paid for help with the investigation (Swallow later returned the money and asked that it come from a different account). Why would Swallow even participate in a discussion with Johnson concerning the investigation?
Swallow needs to explain why he and his family used Johnson's Lake Powell houseboat. Again, why would an attorney representing the people pursue such a relationship with someone under suspicion of harming the people?
He should answer questions concerning large campaign donations he accepted from companies that offer get-rich-quick schemes and other Internet offers that frequently come under suspicion from state and federal regulators. Why did he accept such money and should Utahns feel less protected as a result? Why did he accept money from a financial adviser who had sued the state and whose claim might be refiled?
The FBI is investigating these and other questions. We understand why the attorney general would be reluctant to comment on something that is part of an active investigation. But being a publicly elected official carries a responsibility for transparency and accountability. If Swallow is more concerned with the investigation than with that accountability, he does not have to remain a public official. But if he chooses not to resign, he needs to have a frank and honest discussion with the people.