Bell, Swallow investigations test the public trust

Published: Friday, Feb. 22 2013 7:15 p.m. MST

Utah Attorney General John Swallow as Utah Gov. Gary Herbert delivers the State of the State speech to the Utah State Legislature on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, January 30, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Tom Smart,Pool)

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With abuse of power allegations surfacing against Lt. Gov. Greg Bell this week, two top Utah elected officials now find themselves under federal investigation.

Although Utah politicians have been involved in various scandals over the years, rarely, if ever, has one, let alone two — Attorney General John Swallow and now Bell — faced possible federal criminal indictments.

"It's not a very common event to have elected officials interviewed by the FBI. It certainly raises some cautions about the conduct of state government when you have the federal government investigating," said Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah political science professor.

Some people might lose confidence in government, especially those who already have a cynical view of politics, he said. On the other hand, Burbank said, it shows that even powerful people are subject to the law.

Regardless of the outcome of FBI investigations into Bell and Swallow, their fellow Republicans who control both the Utah House and Senate say those cases heighten the need for policy changes in the state's executive branch. But they also made a point to say it's unfair to compare the two situations.

"Having the public trust their public officials, their elected officials is very important," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. "It appears it may be time for us to address some things."

Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said Thursday his office and the FBI are looking into whether Bell commissioned an audit to interfere with a child welfare case allegedly involving the daughter of one of Bell's friends.

Rawlings said he started a criminal investigation in November 2011 after a constituent complained. The complaint alleges government power and taxpayer money were abused when Bell asked for a review of the case.

Bell issued a statement Friday saying his office was legally authorized to seek an audit of the Utah Department of Child and Family Services' policies and procedures, and that he stands behind his actions.

"My motivation was not to tilt the outcome, and this review did not do so. I wanted only to insure the integrity of the process and that DCFS was in compliance with the law," he said.

Meantime, the U.S. Attorney's Office said last month the FBI and the Department of Justice are investigating Swallow's dealings with indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson.

Johnson claims Swallow helped set up a $600,000 payment to enlist Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in an effort to thwart a possible Federal Trade Commission complaint against Johnson's Internet marketing company. Swallow adamantly denies the allegations. Reid has disavowed any knowledge of Johnson's case.

"These are two very different circumstances, so it doesn't look like it's the tip of an iceberg type thing," Burbank said, adding that nobody's talking about money changing hands in Bell's case. "It may be simply coincidental that they're happening at the same time."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he didn't know enough about the allegations against Bell to comment on them specifically.

"But again, (that) raises questions for us as legislators and the executive branch whether we need to focus more attention on some rules and some ethics that will help prevent that going forward," he said.

Currently, residents have no avenue short of the courts to lodge a complaint against the state's five top elected executives — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer and auditor.

"I think there's still some things we need to do," Niederhauser said, noting that the Legislature created an independent ethics commission for itself a few years ago.

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