I think they understand the political reality that this process needs to be as open and transparent as possible. —Salt Lake attorney Jeff Hunt
SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers will meet in a special session Wednesday to consider bills that would empower a first-of-its-kind House committee to investigate embattled Attorney General John Swallow.
"This is a different animal. It's not a typical legislative committee. It's taking on a function that legislative committees typically don't take on, this investigatory function," said Salt Lake attorney Jeff Hunt.
Hunt represented a coalition of media outlets that negotiated with legislators to ensure the language in the bills makes the investigation public.
"I think they understand the political reality that this process needs to be as open and transparent as possible," he said Monday.
Hunt said hearings would be presumed open with some exceptions, such as the committee seeking legal advice and planning strategy. There may be cases in which witnesses might not want to testify in public due to the ongoing federal investigation into Swallow, he said.
"They're going to be able to offer immunity and a number of incentives to get these witnesses to testify," Hunt said. "Our expectation is that the vast majority of the testimony will be taken in an open meeting."
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, acknowledged in an email to representatives that open meetings and records access were "sensitive subject matter."
Lockhart said the powers being sought were "essentially the same as afforded any investigation into sensitive matters." Because the committee is a first for lawmakers, she said, the statutes have not included references to such an investigation.
The speaker told House members the special session is needed to ensure the committee "has all the tools needed to conduct a thorough and fair investigation of the allegations surrounding the state's attorney general."
She also said in the email that progress is already being made in the investigation, with the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel issuing a request for bids last week to provide legal services to the House committee.
The contract for legal services is scheduled to be awarded on Aug. 9.
"We've had a lot of interest," legislative general counsel John Fellows said, including from attorneys outside of Utah. The request for bids has been circulated to every state's bar association as well as the national top law schools and other contacts.
In a letter to potential bidders, Fellows said the position will allow "a qualified and motived attorney to play an important role in the history of Utah government," while serving Utahns "by performing a vital and consequential task."
Fellows said once the bid is awarded, the attorney or attorneys hired will help determine the other staff needed by the committee. While the estimated cost of the investigation is as high as $3 million, no budget has been set for the hires.
In addition to the Legislature hiring outside attorneys, the lieutenant governor's office is ready to name special counsel to investigate allegations that Swallow violated state campaign finance laws.
Chief deputy lieutenant governor Mark Thomas said his office would choose the law firm Monday and then give Swallow's attorneys a day to consider any possible conflicts of interest. Thomas anticipates revealing the choice on Wednesday.
"We've got some good proposals. I think we're in good shape with whoever we select," he said.
Lockhart said in her email she will wait until Wednesday to announce who will serve on the nine-member investigative committee. Democrats have pushed for equal representation on the panel.
"We want to make sure that our constituents are aptly represented on the committee," said Assistant Minority Whip Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City. "I think it bodes well for the committee if it has, as much as possible, equitable representation from both parties."
Lockhart has not revealed the partisan makeup of the panel.
Contributing: Richard Piatt