Legislative leaders expect little debate at special session

Published: Tuesday, July 16 2013 10:06 p.m. MDT

Utah Attorney General John Swallow speaks with reporters after appearing on the Doug Wright show in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 14, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

SALT LAKE CITY — Legislative leaders are expecting little debate at Wednesday's special session, called primarily to deal with issues related to a new House committee created to investigate Attorney General John Swallow.

"I think it will go smoothly because most of it is just technical kinds of changes," House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said Tuesday. "I don't anticipate a lot of debate on any of it."

That includes a late addition to the agenda of the special session called by Gov. Gary Herbert, a repeal of controversial legislation limiting the power of federal law enforcement authorities on public lands that's being challenged in court.

The legislation's sponsor, Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said he intends to bring back the issue in the 2014 Legislature but for now wants HB155 repealed. Legislative leaders had said they did not want to deal with changing the law in a special session.

Recently, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction against HB155, citing a risk the public would misunderstand the federal government's authority to enforce the law on public lands.

Other items on the agenda include a nearly $3 million settlement to a 15-year-old legal battle between the Utah State Armory Board and Deep Creek Ranch over an $850,000 land deal in Tooele County.

The focus of the special session is on ensuring the House committee created by representatives on July 3 has the ability, in certain cases, to close meetings and keep records private, as well as hire lawyers and investigators from outside the state.

Attorneys for Swallow, the subject of federal, state and local investigations into a number of allegations asked legislative leaders in a letter dated Monday to allow the attorney general to subpoena witnesses to testify on his behalf before the committee and his lawyers to be present when witness statements are taken.

"We have little doubt the investigative committee will be interested in the entire truth, even if the scope of the inquiry may exceed the legislative constitutional limits," the attorneys, Rod Snow, Neil Kaplan and Jennifer James, wrote.

Swallow's lawyers also once again raised questions about whether the House was exceeding its authority, suggesting that an attempt to "override the election process" could violate the federal Civil Rights Act.

The attorney general, who took office in January, has denied any wrongdoing and said he will cooperate with the House investigation.

Lockhart said Tuesday she had no second thoughts about turning down the governor's offer last month to call the Legislature into special session to create the committee, despite later discovering the need for action by the full Legislature.

The price tag for holding the special House meeting, she said, was expected to be less than $20,000. Because Wednesday's special legislative session is being held during regular interim meetings, there is no additional cost.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he was supportive of the House's efforts to launch an investigation into Swallow.

"We're obviously concerned about the cost, but the integrity of our government, the integrity of our process is in question, and we need to defend that," the Senate leader said.

A "substantive investigation" is the first step that must be taken before an impeachment, Niederhauser said, "so we're not pulling a trigger and we're embarrassed at the end that there is no problem."

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