Democrats try to question Swallow, call for ethics reform

Published: Friday, Feb. 15 2013 6:45 p.m. MST

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

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SALT LAKE CITY — A Democratic lawmaker's attempt to ask embattled Utah Attorney General John Swallow some tough questions in an appropriations committee meeting Friday were headed off by a Republican senator who ruled them out of order.

Also Friday, both Democrats and Republicans discussed campaign ethics reforms, which are spurred in part by the controversy surrounding Swallow, though they went out of their way to not say that.

Meantime, the Utah Republican Party's central committee is holding its regular meeting Saturday with the controversy surrounding Swallow as a backdrop to those party discussions.

In the appropriations meeting, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, wanted to know if Swallow was familiar with state administrative rules regarding outside employment and conflicts of interest. Committee Chairman Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, called the question out of order.

"I have serious questions about the extent to which the AG's office, past and currently, is not in compliance with those rules," King said. "I think that's squarely in the wheelhouse of what we're talking about on this committee."

Thatcher agreed those issues should be looked at but said they're policy not appropriations decisions.

"I also believe there's a court of law that handles these kinds of disputes," he said. "I think if there was something that happened that was untoward, that should be shaken out in a court of law and not a political appropriations meeting."

King's questions came after Swallow told the committee the office was losing attorneys to higher paying jobs. King contended his inquiry was germane to that discussion.

Swallow's outside consulting work while serving as chief deputy attorney general came under fire earlier in the wake of allegations made against him by indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson last month.

Johnson claims Swallow helped broker a deal to bribe Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to head off a potential Federal Trade Commission lawsuit against Johnson's Internet marketing company. Reid has denied any knowledge of Johnson's case.

Swallow said all he did was introduce Johnson to Richard Rawle, the late owner the payday loan chain Check City, who had connections to federal lobbyists. Johnson and an associate paid Rawle $250,000.

Rawle kept $50,000 as his fee and paid Swallow $23,500 out of that money for consulting work he did on a Nevada cement plant project. Swallow later returned that money and asked Rawle to pay him from a different account, which he did.

Swallow also has been accused of taking campaign donations from companies in exchange for favorable treatment should they run into regulatory problems. He has strongly denied all of the allegations against him. The FBI is investigating the accusations.

Legislative Democrats proposed a series of ethics bills, something they have done year after year with little success. Republicans, who own large majorities in the Utah House and Senate, say they're open to talking about reform and plan to run their own bills.

One Democratic proposal parallels recommendations made by former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s bipartisan Commission on Strengthening Democracy in 2009. It calls for contributions by political action committees, corporations and labor organizations to be capped at $10,000 for state offices and $5,000 for legislative offices.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said it's more about Utah's system, which allows candidates to raise large sums of money from people doing business with the state, than it is about one person.

"This is not an attorney general issue. This is the way we ought to be," he said, conceding Swallow's troubles "definitely focuses us a lot more on our system."

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