Donations, actions raise more questions about Swallow's judgment
"I think anyone running for attorney general under Utah's current system is being put in a very difficult ethical box because Utah is one of the only states that allow unlimited campaign contributions," Jowers said. "I think the incentives and pressures are not aligned right for that office."
The Governor's Commission on Strengthening Utah's Democracy, for which Jowers served as chairman, advocates that the governor appoint the attorney general along with the offices of state treasurer and state auditor. Seven states currently appoint rather than elect the attorney general.
Short of that, Jowers said, the state should impose campaign contribution limits.
Swallow first met Johnson while working as Shurtleff's chief fundraiser in 2008.
Johnson didn't contribute to Swallow's campaign but gave more than $200,000 to Shurtleff. Shurtleff, through his Utah's Prosperity Foundation PAC, donated $130,000 to Swallow.
Shurtleff did not respond to a request for an interview.
Johnson's allegations against Swallow have raised both criminal and ethical questions about his actions. The U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah said it is conducting an investigation, something Swallow himself requested while vehemently proclaiming his innocence.
The Federal Trade Commission alleges Johnson's online company, iWorks, scammed customers out of $300 million by billing their credit cards for services and products they didn't order. Johnson also faces criminal fraud charges in connection with the business.
Swallow maintains the $250,000 Johnson and a business associate paid to a friend of Swallow's was intended to lobby the FTC on Johnson's behalf. Johnson claims it was part of a payoff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to thwart the agency's investigation. Reid has disavowed any knowledge of Johnson's case.
Johnson secretly recorded a conversation he and Swallow had about the deal in a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop in Orem last April. Swallow says the recording shows he did nothing illegal.
Most observers are taking a wait-and-see attitude as the federal investigation runs its course. Simmering rumors of a federal grand jury continue to dog the office.
Former state Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen, who managed Swallow's unsuccessful 2002 bid for Congress, said he told Swallow to hang in there if he hasn't done anything wrong.
"This is the time to have ice water in your veins to withstand what some people are going to say about you," he said he told Swallow.
Hansen said Swallow has what it takes to weather the storm.
"If nothing new comes out, he'll be fine. He's going to be scarred, there's no question about it, but he has three and half years to get over that. Then he just has to be a damn good attorney general," Hansen said.
Jowers, however, said public perception might leave Swallow clinging to the job in a weakened position for what would likely be his only term.
Republican insiders say Swallow's position is tenuous. Names of possible replacements have already been circulating. Even the governor's office has quietly sought out candidates to replace him.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, the party's central committee could consider reprimanding Swallow this month.
Swallow has said he has no plans to step down.
Pelo, Swallow's friend from their college days at BYU, said an attorney general who stands up for what he believes is more important than having perfect judgment.
"This is someone who just saw John coming," Pelo says of Johnson.
Pelo doesn't believe Swallow would be involved in bribing a U.S. senator, even for someone he considered a friend as Swallow did Johnson.