Dan Liljenquist: Silence on Swallow matter is not indifference

Published: Thursday, Feb. 28 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

As the Swallow scandal unfolds, legislators have been counseled to be silent by John Fellows, the Legislature's general legal counsel. Except for a handful of individuals trying to make political hay out of the situation, legislators have taken their constitutional responsibility very seriously.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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It has been one week since I called for the resignation of Attorney General John Swallow on these pages. Over this past week, several Utahns have asked me, "Why are Republican legislators silent on the Swallow scandal?" This concern has arisen so often that I believe it is worth addressing in this column.

Under the constitution of the state of Utah, "the Governor and other State and Judicial officers shall be liable to impeachment for high crimes, misdemeanors or malfeasance in office." Impeachment is constitutionally vested in the legislative branch. The House of Representatives initiates impeachment proceedings, and it has the authority to issue subpoenas and examine evidence.

If the House deems that the evidence is sufficient for impeachment, it drafts articles of impeachment, which are recommended to the entire House for adoption. If the articles of impeachment are approved by two-thirds of the House, the officer is impeached and the matter is referred to the Senate for trial. The Senate serves as the judge and jury in the impeachment process. Each senator is required to swear an oath to do justice according to the law and evidence. Two-thirds of the Senate must vote that one or more articles of impeachment have been proven to convict the officer.

The integrity of an impeachment process requires legislators to be and remain impartial before and during the proceedings. As the Swallow scandal unfolds, legislators have been counseled to be silent by John Fellows, the Legislature's general legal counsel. Except for a handful of individuals trying to make political hay out of the situation, legislators have taken their constitutional responsibility very seriously. Utah has never initiated impeachment proceedings. This is truly uncharted territory, and I am proud of the restraint that legislators have shown over the last several weeks.

To imply by their silence that legislators somehow condone the conduct of Swallow is just plain wrong. In fact, there is substantial evidence to the contrary. In this legislative session, several bills are progressing to tighten up our ethics laws. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is running legislation that closes the legal loophole Swallow exploited to engage in outside consulting work while being paid a full-time salary to be the chief deputy attorney general. Weiler's bill will codify what the majority of Utahns already believed to be the law of the land.

Another bill introduced this week by Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, creates an independent executive branch ethics commission. Under existing law, any complaint against a statewide official is referred to the attorney general for investigation. That is clearly a problem when the attorney general is the target of such a complaint. Valentine's legislation extends the independent ethics commission structure, which is currently in place for the legislature and local governments, to the executive branch. The independent executive branch ethics commission will have the power to fully investigate complaints, including the ability to issue subpoenas to gather evidence. The investigations can occur in private until they are completed. If the complaint has merit the entire investigation will be made public. If the complaint has no merit then the case is closed and the investigation is sealed. This is common sense legislation that will help restore trust in the attorney general's office.

I am grateful for the good men and women who serve us in the state Legislature. Utah is the best managed state in the nation precisely because the majority of our legislators are thoughtful, careful and prudent. They are good people and I trust that they will help the state navigate through these difficult times.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.

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