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. —Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah political science professor
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.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, has a bill to create an independent ethics commission in the executive branch.
"An independent ethics commission is in response to the various, different problems you're seeing here today," he said.
Should the bill pass, it would take effect May 14 and not be retroactive. Valentine said the commission would only investigate alleged actions occurring after that date.
Republican leaders in the Utah House and Senate say the allegations against Swallow and Bell are a distraction. But, as Niederhauser said, it "helps us going forward that we need to be especially careful as legislators and elected officials in what we do."
In his statement, Bell said a family contacted him in 2011 to complain about the way DCFS treated them. He said he passed the information to Palmer DePaulis, executive director of the Utah Department of Human Services. DePaulis, Bell said, checked on the case and told him it was being handled correctly.
"However, as additional information emerged, I could not reconcile the widely divergent accounts from DCFS and the family," Bell said. "If the family's account was true, I would have been irresponsible not to investigate further."
Bell said he then asked a staff auditor for a recommendation, and he suggested they assign a team of state-employed auditors to evaluate whether DCFS followed its polices and procedures. It was a "neutral, objective" way to get the bottom of conflicting claims, Bell said.
The audit focused not on the truth or falsity of the claims against the family, but on what policies and procedures DCFS had in place to protect families and whether DCFS had adhered to them, Bell said.
Lockhart said lawmakers often are approached by constituents needing assistance in dealing with government.
"Where is the line where we're trying to help a constituent navigate a bureaucratic process and then crossing the line into trying to influence? That's a line we all deal with," she said. "I'm not going to pass judgment."
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said the Bell and Swallow situations are entirely different.
"(Bell) is one of the most ethical people I know," Weiler said. "I think it's a shame that he's being tied to John Swallow."
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who replaced Bell in the state Senate when Gov. Gary Herbert appointed him lieutenant governor, also came to Bell's defense.
"I believe that Greg Bell is so straight you could use him as a template to stripe the freeways with," Adams said.
Herbert has said he has "all the confidence in the world in Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who has not done anything inappropriate. He is as honest as the day is long."
The governor, in his monthly news conference on KUED Ch. 7, said such reviews within the executive branch are not unusual.
"We have a responsibility in the executive branch to have oversight. We get complaints all the time about how processes are not functioning correctly," Herbert said. "We need to protect the integrity of the process, particularly in these kinds of emotional issues."
While GOP senators are standing up for Bell, they and Republicans in general have not come to Swallow's defense. Longtime Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said the difference is they have stood shoulder to shoulder with Bell in the Senate.
"We've come to deal with him on a daily basis. (We) know that when he says something, we can rely on it. We don't have that same relationship with John Swallow," Hillyard said.
Senate leaders said they have to be careful in what they say about Swallow because they would be judge and jury in possible impeachment proceedings. Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, acknowledged the GOP Senate caucus discussed that possibility again Thursday behind closed doors.
House Republicans and their leaders have talked about impeachment proceedings against Swallow "only in the context (the Senate is) talking about it," Lockhart said, although the process, which must start in the House, has been reviewed.
"We haven't done this before in Utah," the speaker said, "so when and if, I stress when and if, we need to be prepared. We need to know the process."