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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Is John Swallow the victim of a media witch hunt?

Published: Sunday, June 23 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Embattled Utah Attorney General John Swallow made a surprise appearance Saturday in front of fellow Republican leaders, asking for their patience as the allegations against him are investigated.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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This early summer, one issue dominates Utah politics. Every day, from early until late, we hear questions regarding Utah's attorney general. Although we are weary of this matter, some of the side issues need exploring.

Attorney General John Swallow and his supporters say he is the victim of a media witch hunt. Is this true, or is fire raging behind all the smoke?

Pignanelli: "In fighting scandal, the key is not to overreact." — Dick Morris

The Swallow controversy is a witch hunt because there is evidence of flying broomsticks, eyes of newt, and other items of the dark arts (aka numerous allegations from various sources).

This matter began with a tape recording of an October 2011 conversation between Swallow and accused businessman Jeremy Johnson, in an Orem Krispy Kreme diner. For the deputy attorney general to attend such a meeting was a phenomenal misjudgment. The scandal gained traction with evidence of Swallow's personal interactions with other white-collar criminals. This was compounded by Swallow's ineffective responses, including his excuse that anything objectionable occurred while in "private practice." Thousands of Utah lawyers in "private practice" (including me) were surprised to hear a bar license as an exemption for misbehavior. A private attorney with ambitions to be appointed deputy attorney general and who solicits a business relationship with an individual who pled guilty to a felony for fraudulent crimes against Utahns bruises the Rules of Professional Conduct in many areas.

Separately, the Swallow incidents are small. But in total, and combined with concerns with predecessor Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, is a witch's brew with noxious fumes.

Webb: It's more a media feeding frenzy than a media witch hunt. It's the nature of the news business, and it will always be thus. It does Swallow no good to blame news agencies. It's true that the news media become a blunt instrument when a story gets hot and everyone is hustling for the latest scoop or tidbit of information. Context and nuance are sometimes lost as any and all statements and events are reported, fair or not.

The story takes on a life of its own, and once an assumption of wrongdoing is prevalent, almost every news report has a negative spin. As investigations drag on slowly, an information vacuum occurs, leaving reporters to grasp at even the most minor of details or any new angle. The news media aren't necessarily to blame. It's just a fact of life when a juicy story gets rolling, and it is the price we pay for a free press. I've been there — and even this column is part of the frenzy.

Is the Legislature too cautious or too hasty in its process of considering impeachment?

Pignanelli: Prominent Brigham Young University pollsters Quin Monson and Kelly Patterson certified that almost 80 percent of Utahns want Swallow out, and 72 percent favor impeachment proceedings. Such numbers normally breed lynch mobs at the Capitol, but the Legislature is a shining example of probity. Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, is providing guidance without a heavy hand. The Democrats shrewdly express concerns — with detached emotions — to nullify accusations of partisanship. Several stellar lawmakers, through blogs and public announcements, made a methodical case for inspection and action, including Rep. Spencer Cox, R-Fairview, Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, Minority leader Jen Seelig, D-Salt Lake, and Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake. The decision last Wednesday to establish an investigatory committee is a thoughtful next step toward resolution.

Webb: This is very much uncharted territory for the Legislature. Time will tell whether lawmakers will accomplish anything useful or just add another ring to this multi-ring circus. All the other federal and state investigations have clear-cut missions — to determine whether enough evidence exists to charge Swallow with violating a law. Lawmakers have no authority to charge or convict anyone of breaking a law. They do have authority, through the impeachment process, to toss someone out of office.

Thus, the mission of the legislative investigation is apparently to determine if Swallow committed impeachable offenses. But the standards set to make that determination are very murky — and very political. Will they try to decide if Swallow broke a law? Will they look at his personal morality and integrity? In addition, the powers, processes and procedures of the investigatory committee all have to be worked out.

So the legislative investigation is likely to drag on for a long time, and it will become a major public spectacle, unlike the other investigations occurring quietly and in private. Interestingly, Swallow said he welcomed this investigation, which will keep the story alive for months.

This is clearly far from over, but has Utah politics — in the long term — been impacted already?

Pignanelli: Nervous jokes from lawmakers such as, "Are you wearing a mike?" are more abundant. There is a hypersensitivity to the topics of fundraising, government regulations, economic incentives, etc. This may lead to legislation in the 2014 session regarding campaign limits, further restrictions on where donations are made and how, etc.

Webb: There are lots of lessons we all should have learned in kindergarten or soon thereafter: Don't skate close to the edge. Don't seek money from shady characters. Don't try to cover up bad behavior. Pay your own way. Don't be greedy. Don't shake anyone down. A lot of Utah politicians are being a lot more careful these days.

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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