After four months, the drip, drip, drip of news stories about Utah's attorney general turned into a gusher of bad publicity a week ago. Most political conversations now include references to former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and current AG John Swallow.
Have the latest revelations in this never-ending saga changed the dynamics of this issue, or is it just a misperception based on fatigue?
Pignanelli: "Always pay for your own drinks. All the scandals in the world of politics today have their cause in the despicable habit of swallowing free drinks." — Y. Yakigawa (president of Kyoto University)
The bad news: Shurtleff and Swallow received free lodging and goodies at a posh resort compliments of a convicted swindler. Good news: Utah politics has a new entry in our lexicon of disgraces: "golfing and massaging with felons."
Utahns were shocked, distraught and angered to learn of a tape recording wherein popular former AG Shurtleff offered his office to assist one business collect a debt from another, using the leverage of judicial procedure. This was more unsettling than the articles alleging aggressive — and potentially unethical — fund-raising tactics utilized by Shurtleff and his Deputy Swallow. Thus, the trajectory of this scandal has altered. Utahns now view Shurtleff and Swallow together as one culpable entity and want a resolution regardless of federal investigations.
Webb: In politics, perception is as important as substance, so Swallow and Shurtleff have certainly been damaged. While sometimes disagreeing with them on political issues, I have long assumed that both Swallow and Shurtleff are essentially good people, and I would still be surprised and disappointed if either one flagrantly violated a law or accepted a bribe.
Wealthy and famous people, along with wheeler-dealers and shady characters, are inexorably drawn to politicians. And the attraction is often mutual, because every major politician has to raise a lot of money. A top politician will inevitably come into contact with the rich and famous and also some seedy characters looking for favors, sometimes in the name of constituent services.
But a really excellent politician has a sixth sense that raises alerts when a fast-talking, shifty fellow comes calling, showcasing the trappings of wealth and what that implies. Great politicians quickly sort things out and politely, but firmly, decline to engage. Swallow and Shurtleff don't appear to have had a well-developed sixth sense of political propriety.
Until recently, most Utah officials have declined to comment or take action regarding this controversy, in deference to official investigations. Will state leaders now be pressured to make public statements and act on the allegations against the attorney general?
Pignanelli: Our state abhors any public embarrassment that smacks of unethical or criminal conduct by an official. Further, this dishonor is an unsightly pimple on the economic and technology boom the state is enjoying. The traditional Utah method of removing such blemishes reflects our culture: passive regressive but very effective. The "Establishment" (business, legal, community, religious) is quietly building momentum to push both Swallow's resignation and action by government leaders. House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart opened the door with her email last week outlining the process for impeachment, which allowed other officials (Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield) to step through and demand Swallow's resignation.
Webb: If the state's top lawyer is officially accused of violating the law, then he obviously should resign or be impeached. But sometimes, even before innocence or guilt is established, the furor surrounding a controversy reaches a level that prevents an elected official from adequately executing his duties. At that point, the official should resign for the good of the office and the state.
I don't know if the cloud over the attorney general's office is just creating gloom, or if the downpour is so great that the state's legal business is not getting done. That's something Swallow himself, his top lieutenants, and the state's other elected officials should monitor and take action if and when appropriate.
Can Swallow hold out any longer? Does he eventually resign or is he impeached by the Utah House of Representatives?13 comments on this story
Pignanelli: I was one of the few who publicly stated that Swallow could survive this turmoil because the threshold of evidence for indictment is low, whereas actual conviction is very high. Also, until recently Shurtleff was suffering minor collateral damage from the accusations against Swallow. This dynamic is now reversed, with Swallow incurring injuries from the allegations against Shurtleff. The cumulative force against Swallow now prevents his survival. Two undercurrents will continue to increase: the weight on Swallow to resign and pressure on legislators to bring articles of impeachment. One or the other will occur by mid-summer.
Webb: The instinct of a politician who believes he is innocent is to keep fighting, to exonerate oneself, to prove the naysayers wrong. Sometimes finances become a big factor if one is not independently wealthy.
But it is highly unlikely Swallow would ever be impeached. I believe he would read the handwriting on the wall, have conservations with wise leaders concerned both about his welfare and also the good of the state, and he would leave before impeachment proceedings become serious. The office is bigger than the man. I believe Swallow would want to protect the integrity of the office and the important functions it provides in state government.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: email@example.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: firstname.lastname@example.org.