SALT LAKE CITY — Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart named a new leader Thursday to the committee investigating Attorney General John Swallow to avoid the previous chairman's potential conflict of interest.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, will now head the nine-member panel in place of Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, a lawyer who did legal work for one of Swallow's chief accusers.
Also Thursday, the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel opened bids from 61 law firms seeking to advise the committee during the investigation. The list includes 20 Utah law offices as well as powerful firms in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.
Snow and Lockhart say they mutually agreed that he should resign.
“Rep. Snow is above reproach, which is why he was chosen as chairman in the first place,” Lockhart, R-Provo, said. “But whether we like it or not, perception matters in the public sphere. It pains me to lose him, his talents and leadership skills.”
Snow said his top concern was that the investigation be done with integrity and transparency.
"I felt it was in the best interests of the committee to step aside in order to avoid any perception of conflict of interest,” Snow said. “This will allow the public to focus on the investigation, and not on who is doing the investigating.”
Dunnigan, who has served in the Republican-controlled House since 2003, owns an insurance agency. Lockhart appointed him last week as one of five Republicans on the investigative committee. The panel also has four Democrats.
“Rep. Dunnigan is a veteran lawmaker who is a widely respected member of the House,” Lockhart said. “I expect he will be tough but fair in how he runs this committee.”
Dunnigan will chair the panel's first meeting Aug. 6. He said the speaker has put together a good committee that will be focused on gathering facts for lawmakers and the public. He said he wants the investigation to be done fairly and openly.
Dunnigan said he's not aware of any conflicts he might have such as having sold insurance to someone the committee will deal with.
Lockhart chose Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, to replace Snow.
A 2008 civil lawsuit lists Snow as the attorney for several defendants, including Johnson, the indicted St. George businessman whose allegations against Swallow sparked a political firestorm. 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, Snow Jensen & Reece, also represents Liahona Academy, a school for troubled boys that had its assets frozen in the Federal Trade Commission case against Johnson. Two of Johnson's former business partners who are part of the FTC case were involved with the school.
Meantime, the House committee has plenty of willing partners for its investigation of Swallow, from a personal injury lawyer in Idaho to international law firms in Washington, D.C.
"We're really pleased because it gives us a lot to look at," said Thomas Vaughn, legislative associate general counsel.
Some of the firms outside the state have Utah ties, including Caplin & Drysdale in Washington, D.C., which lists University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics executive director Kirk Jowers among its lawyers. Several have considerable experience in the political arena.
The Los Angeles office of Sidley Austin also put in a bid. Lawyers who worked in its Chicago office include President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, and former U.S. Solicitor General and BYU President Rex E. Lee, and current Utah U.S. Attorney David Barlow.
An evaluation committee, which may include state legislators, will whittle the field to a list of finalists that will be announced next Wednesday. It intends to interview the first week of August and award a contract Aug. 9. The House investigation is estimated to cost as much as $3 million.
The firm would take on a long list of duties, including developing investigative and litigation strategy, preparing subpoenas and representing the committee and the House in court if necessary.
In a letter to prospective bidders, legislative general counsel John Fellows said the lawyers selected would be able to use their skills to help the House's "unprecedented historical inquiry." The lawyers should have "good political instincts" and be able to work "diplomatically" with legislators, the letter says.
After initially giving the committee broad latitude to look into Swallow dating back to his admission to the state bar in 1992, lawmakers limited the scope to his time as chief deputy attorney general, a candidate for attorney general and as attorney general. The committee could by majority vote, however, probe allegations of misconduct outside those periods if they pertain to his fitness to serve as attorney general.
GOP House leaders have described the investigative committee as a fact-finding body. It will issue a report but not make recommendations about impeachment proceedings.
In the letter, Fellows wrote that the House is not seeking a predetermined result. It believes that gathering evidence and receiving testimony under oath will provide the House and the public with facts they need to determine whether or how to proceed in the Swallow matter.
Earlier this week, the state elections office hired the Phoenix-based law firm Snell & Wilmer to look into whether Swallow violated Utah campaign finance disclosure laws in a separate investigation. The firm has attorneys throughout the West, including 50 in Salt Lake City.