My view: Make attorney deceit illegal in Utah

By Michael Robinson

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, July 2 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Utah Attorney General John Swallow speaks out Monday, Jan. 14, 2013 in his office at the State Capitol about allegations that he was involved in improper deals.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

The current investigation of corruption at the Utah attorney general's office did not begin with John Swallow. Both he and Mark Shurtleff are implicated in having received compensation in return for the favorable treatment of certain criminal investigations, and there are new accusations that the attorney general may have threatened those who questioned its integrity. A prominent Salt Lake attorney, Marcus Mumford, came forward on June 25 complaining that chief deputy attorney general, Kirk Torgensen, threatened Mumford's law partner to be "careful" about spreading accusations of attorney general's corruption.

Of course, these are only allegations, and everyone, including the attorney general's office, is innocent until proven guilty. But if Utahns were allowed to employ the same kind of misconduct of which the attorney general is accused, securing a guilty verdict against Shurtleff and Swallow would be easy. Using money as the lure, all we'd have to do is interview a few witnesses, rephrase the questions over and over, and encourage those witnesses to slightly alter their testimonies for the more important cause of "justice." The ethics of saving criminals and convicting the innocent are very much the same.

It appears that, while some are helped because of money, there may be others who are wrongly convicted because they cannot afford the necessary cash or in-kind payments. While the activities related to protecting the guilty are shocking, it should be an even more important concern that the attorney general's office, as Utah's top prosecutor, may have had similar breaches of honesty in the prosecution of criminals who didn't qualify for the "special treatment" and could not afford the bribes and favors that are alleged to run our top attorney's office. While that is only conjecture, it is possible — or probable — that there may have been multiple innocent persons whose lives have been affected by attorney corruption at the state level. Where there is misconduct alleged there is probably more, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to review ethical and moral breaches throughout the attorney general's activities.

Utahns can fight corruption in the ranks of those licensed to practice law. Whether it's the top level attorney or any other, each of them took the oath, and it's the right time to reinstate Utah's law against attorney deceit, which was so cleverly eliminated by Utah's legal community in the 2001 legislative session. While the attorney deceit law was designed to protect Utahns against the problem of lawyer dishonesty, it, was suspiciously repealed by the Legislature in 2001, when Sen. Terry R. Spencer sponsored, with the assistance of the Utah Judicial Interim Committee, SB13. The bill was ostensibly for the purpose of clarification and re-codification, but it ended up eliminating the only law which made it a crime for an attorney to lie. Since that law had been in effect for over 100 years, Utahns should wonder why attorney deceit is virtually condoned by our state, and why the system of checks and balances that we hold as a national treasure, has been replaced by the mixing of legislative and judicial authority.

Earlier this year, I drafted a bill dealing with this problem. It was sent to most of our state legislators, and a sponsor was sought. Not surprisingly, the high percentage of attorneys in our Legislature have stonewalled the bill, as it is not in lawyers' best interests to make their lies a crime.

But it is in our best interests. From the fledgling law school graduate to the attorney general's office, Utahns cannot expect justice while attorneys are not required to tell the truth.

Michael Robinson was a columnist for the Daily Utah Chronicle, served as a newscaster at KUER-FM and was an assistant Army Public Information Officer during the Vietnam era.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS