What we're looking at is an elected official, regardless of party, that the public has clearly stated that they have issue with," the minority leader said. I'm walking into this with a clean slate and an open mind. —House Minority Leader Jen Seelig, D-Salt Lake City
SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Lowry Snow, a relatively new GOP lawmaker, said he didn't expect to be named Wednesday as chairman of the new House committee charged with investigating embattled Attorney General John Swallow.
"I thought I might be considered, but the appointment to chair the committee came as a surprise," said Snow, a St. George attorney and former prosecutor and Utah State Bar president who was appointed to the Utah Legislature in January 2012.
Snow is one of five Republicans and four Democrats that House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, appointed to the recently created committee expected to begin work in the coming weeks.
"He is a capable and very well-respected attorney," Lockhart said. "He understands how these things work, which is one of the reasons why I asked him to chair this committee."
Lockhart said she will leave the running of the committee up Snow. Other members include House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Odgen, and House Minority Leader Jen Seelig, D-Salt Lake City.
Democrats had pushed for the 5-4 split on the committee. Lockhart, who made the decision herself about who would investigate the attorney general for the House, said, "This is not a partisan issue to the House of Representatives. This is an issue of public trust."
"What we're looking at is an elected official, regardless of party, that the public has clearly stated that they have issue with," the minority leader said. "I'm walking into this with a clean slate and an open mind."
Swallow is the subject of federal, state and local investigations into a number of allegations, including that he helped broker a deal for an indicted Utah businessman trying to stop a federal investigation into his company.
The committee intends to gather facts regarding the allegations swirling arould Swallow, but will not make a recommendation about impeachment proceedings.
"We need to own this information. Then we can make a decision based on what we know rather than what we hear," Dee said.
Empowering the committee
Lockhart announced the committee makeup after Wednesday's special session of the Legislature. Gov. Gary Herbert called the session mainly to pass legislation to empower the committee that will investigate Swallow.
Lawmakers approved a trio of bills, but not before the House spent about an hour debating several proposed amendments to the most controversial, HB1001, that all failed.
The bill allows for meetings to be closed and records to be protected in some cases as well as for subpoenas to be issued and immunity granted to witnesses. Immunity would not preclude a witnesses from being prosecuted but would prevent their testimony being used against them.
Legislators also passed bills that would allow the investigative committee to hire lawyers and investigators who are not licensed in Utah. The committee is soliciting bids inside and outside the state to fill those positions.
There was no debate in the Senate on the three measures, though Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he was hesitant about giving the committee immunity power because it could "blow up in your face." Any grants of immunity should be carefully thought out, he said.
In the House, Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, tried unsucessfully to set a $500,000 limit on the amount of money the committee could spend before having to come back for legislative approval.
Christensen said a limit would be a "cautionary protection." With the cost of the investigation estimated at as much as $3 million, he said the committee shouldn't be given what amounts to a blank check.
"I don't think it's prudent," Christensen said, warning that lawyers hired for the committee would be in "a race against the clock" to see how fast they can bill the state.
But the sponsor of the bill, Dee, said the committee already is required to keep House leaders updated on expenses. The majority leader said it was important for the House to retain control of the committee's spending.
Other representatives raised concerns about closing any of the investigative committee's meetings. Rep. David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain, said the public's business "ought to be done in the light of day."
Dee said lawmakers worked with representatives of the media to ensure they could support the bill. "There will always be those who are not happy with what we are doing," he said.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, argued for lawmakers to define the scope of the investigation before starting the probe against Swallow, who faces federal, state and local investigations.
Ivory compared the ability of the state to investigate Swallow to using a bazooka to shoot a fly, urging lawmakers to hold hearings on what standards the attorney general should be held to before the investigation starts.
Swallow spokesman Paul Murphy had no comment on Wednesday's actions by the Legislature. The attorney general has said he will cooperate with the House investigation.
Snow said he's not sure whether the committee will run into difficulties, including getting witnesses to testify.
"The process is obviously very early. Its hard to anticipate at the outset all of the issues and obstacles that you're going to have to deal with," Snow said adding the committee we rely on the attorneys it intends to hire for the investigation.
"I think that it's going to be important that we get good advice and we approach it in a deliberative, careful way," he said.
Snow said neither he nor his law firm has any active cases involving the attorney general's office.
"I don't think there's anything that I'm aware of that would impeded my ability to go forward on the committee," he said.
One of the members of the committee, Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said despite Snow is newcomer to the political arena, "he got some good experience. I think he'll be respected as a chair and I think he'll be counted on to be fair."
More Swallow moves
Also Wednesday, the attorney general's office removed itself from the prosecution of Marc Session Jenson, a one-time multimillionaire who has accused Swallow and former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff of shaking him down during all-expenses paid trips to his posh southern California villa.
Jensen also accused Swallow of securing a "quid pro quo" agreement from him for a $1 million lot in the planned members-only resort development known as Mount Holly.
Earlier, Jensen's attorney, Marcus Mumford, asked a 3rd District judge to disqualify the attorney general's office.
"While there is no legal or factual basis to disqualify the office, the state acknowledges that the defendant's allegations have disrupted these proceedings and created at least the appearance of impropriety which cannot be overcome through other means," according to a motion the attorney general's office filed Wednesday.
The attorney general's office is talking to different county attorneys about taking over the prosecution, his spokesman, Murphy, said.
Mumford said although he's pleased the office intends to step aside, he's concerned that a new prosecutor might "simply carry the water" for it.
“The process of assigning a new prosecutor must be transparent to assure impartiality and to ensure justice is served," he said.
In another related matter, the lieutenant governor's office Wednesday did not name special counsel to investigate whether Swallow violated state election law. Chief deputy lieutenant governor Mark Thomas said the announcement would come later this week.
Below are the members of the Utah House investigative committee
Republicans Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, chairman House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork
Democrats House Minority Leader Jen Seelig, D-Salt Lake City Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Salt Lake City Rep. Susan Duckworth, D-Magna