SALT LAKE CITY — A special Utah House committee investigating Attorney General John Swallow isn't off to a clean start.
Even before the newly formed panel's first meeting, Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, faces a decision that could alter the course of the investigation: Should committee chairman Rep. Lowry Snow stay or go?
Snow, R-Santa Clara, has ties to Jeremy Johnson, the indicted St. George businessman who is one of Swallow's chief accusers of wrongdoing. Snow, who is a lawyer, and his firm, Snow Jensen & Reece, have done legal work for Johnson and a business connected to the Federal Trade Commission complaint against him.
Snow, however, said he doesn't believe that would hinder his ability to serve as chairman. He said Friday he hasn't spoken to Lockhart but intends to meet with her early next week. He said he would step down if she believes there is a conflict.
"There's nothing really new to report," Snow said.
Lockhart was traveling Friday and did not return calls for comment.
How much Lockhart vetted the five Republicans and four Democrats she named to the panel Wednesday is unclear. But Snow said his conversation with her before his appointment was brief and that she did not ask about potential conflicts of interest.
"I promised the speaker I would do everything in my power to make this nonpolitical and I'm going to keep that commitment. The work is too important," he said.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis was quick to call on Lockhart to replace Snow with a Democrat.
"This is not an auspicious start for what is supposed to be one of the most important legislative gatherings there is," said Dabakis, who also serves as a state senator for Salt Lake City. "I think this is a major breach. I don't see how he can continue to serve as the chairman."
A 2008 civil lawsuit lists Snow as the attorney for several defendants, including Johnson. Snow said he doesn't recall directly representing Johnson. But he filed a motion to get Johnson dismissed from the case in January 2011, according to court records.
Snow's firm also represents Liahona Academy, a school for troubled boys that had its assets frozen in the FTC case against Johnson. Two of Johnson's former business partners who are part of the FTC case were involved with school.
Snow said though he is the attorney of record, his partner has done most of the work for Liahona.
"The entity is not owned by Jeremy Johnson. He's not a principal of the company. We have no dealings with Jeremy Johnson," Snow said.
Swallow's attorney Rod Snow — no relation to Lowry Snow — said he's not aware of all the facts. But he said Lowry Snow's firm representing businesses or individuals whose assets were frozen by the FTC in the Johnson case is not a sufficient basis to disqualify the committee chairman.
"Lowry is a respected lawyer with integrity and sound judgment," Rod Snow said.
Swallow spokesman Paul Murphy said he had no comment other than it's an issue for legislators to work out.
Johnson touched off a political firestorm in January when he accused Swallow of arranging to bribe Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to derail a FTC investigation of Johnson's Internet marketing company, iWorks. Swallow and Reid have denied any wrongdoing.
The FTC alleges iWorks bilked online customers of more than $275 million by luring them into "trial" memberships for bogus moneymaking and government grant opportunities. Johnson also faces an 86-count criminal indictment related to his business enterprise.
House investigative committee members Friday said they lacked details about Lowry Snow's ties to Johnson to say whether the chairman should step aside. All of them deferred to Lockhart.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said he doesn't know how pertinent Lowry Snow's 2008 legal work for Johnson is to the Swallow investigation.
"I would like more information on just what involvement Rep. Snow had and what ties there are, if any, to the investigation today," he said.
Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, said if Lowry Snow doesn't feel like he has a conflict, he should continue as chairman. He likened the situation to the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" where anyone could be linked to a particular person.6 comments on this story
"At this point, I'm not the least bit concerned about it," Perry said, adding it seems like making a mountain out of molehill.
House Minority Assistant Whip Rebecca Chavez-Houck, one four Democrats on the panel, said she wants to make sure committee maintains integrity.
"The news is pretty fresh. We just want to let things be assessed by the speaker and leadership and have them decide whether or not they feel that something needs to change," she said.
But, she said, "there can't be a perception of concern."