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Donations, actions raise more questions about Swallow's judgment

Published: Saturday, Feb. 9 2013 9:45 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — It remains to be seen whether embattled Utah Attorney General John Swallow will face criminal charges as a result of his dealings with indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson.

But his ethics and judgment have been called into question since Johnson accused him last month of helping broker a deal to bribe a U.S. senator in an effort to derail a federal investigation into Johnson's Internet marketing company.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah acknowledged last month that it, along with the FBI, is investigating the allegations.

Regardless of the outcome, having the state's top law enforcement officer under investigation creates a cloud of suspicion that could diminish his effectiveness. It also opens his recent decisions and statements to more scrutiny and has members of his own party questioning whether he can survive in office.

Campaign finance reports, two secret recordings, court documents and interviews with associates and others provide insight into how Swallow has moved through political circles, shows his willingness to advise characters whose dealings are in question, and puts in focus the role money plays in gaining access to decision makers.

Swallow's dealings include: 

• Accepting a campaign donation from a St. George financial adviser who sued the state  and who might refile a complaint that could end up before him.

• Meeting Johnson in an Orem doughnut shop where the arrangement to head off the Federal Trade Commission investigation into Johnson's iWorks enterprise was discussed.

• Accepting a campaign donation from a company the FTC later charged with consumer fraud.

• Using Johnson's luxury houseboat on Lake Powell in 2010 and then wondering if it could hurt him politically, or worse.

• Quietly telling a telemarketer during his election campaign that the attorney general's office should take over the state Division of Consumer Protection, an agency that has butted heads with the office regarding whom or whom not to investigate.

In addition, some of Swallow's largest campaign donations — some as high as $25,000 — came from Internet companies offering programs to get rich or coaching services for online businesses, sites that frequently draw attention from state and federal regulators.

Others such as the Provo-based home security firm Vivint, which was recently sold for $2 billion, have run into problems over their sales practices with attorneys general in other states.

Swallow did not make himself available for an interview to discuss these specific dealings. But other than Swallow's own previous denials of wrongdoing, few have stood up to defend the Republican attorney general against Johnson's claims. State GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said Swallow made mistakes and called for ethics reform to prevent such a situation from happening again.

Swallow's longtime friend Brad Pelo describes him as guileless person prone to giving others the benefit of the doubt.

"John is by nature someone who trusts people," he said. But it is that trust that is now being questioned as poor judgment.

Political ambitions

Holding public office has been a dream of Swallow's since he was a teenager working on his family farm in eastern Nevada. He won three terms in the Utah Legislature before seeking higher office. He twice challenged Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson for Congress, losing in 2002 and 2004.

Swallow had his own law practice involving business, real estate, financial, government and corporate matters before getting into politics. He and Pelo once launched a company called On Technology aimed at making a more efficient light bulb.

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