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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: What lessons can we learn from the John Swallow saga?

Published: Sunday, Dec. 1 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Utah Attorney General John Swallow announces his resignation during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

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The John Swallow saga comes closer to final conclusion this week when his resignation becomes effective. However, the ripple effects will continue. We explore some of the lessons learned.

Many Utahns are outraged at Swallow’s breach of ethics and legal responsibilities. Is this a rare case in Utah politics or indications of corruption in our political system?

Pignanelli: "Politicians are more likely than people in the general population to be sociopaths. I think you would find no expert in the field of sociopathy/psychopathy/antisocial personality disorder who would dispute this."Dr. Martha Stout, clinical psychologist, Harvard Medical School

John Swallow is not a mass murderer (although causing millions of dollars in legal fees qualifies for sadistic mayhem), but he exhibits the qualities of a “political sociopath.” These individuals are charming, intelligent and never apologize because they believe what comes from their mouth is the truth. Throughout this ordeal, especially at his resignation press conference, Swallow demonstrated no remorse or regret for the pain caused by his actions. The lieutenant governor's report highlights his incessant attempts to reinvent the facts.

For 30 years, I have witnessed or learned of many acts of political corruption. While this stinky pile of malfeasance is disgusting, it is outweighed at an exponential level by the good intentions and sincere actions of Utah public servants. An overwhelming majority of our elected and appointed officials are good and decent. Swallow is the well-publicized exception.

Webb: If anything, Utah has less political corruption than most states. Still, as is the case in any profession, not every politician has impeccable character. As I’ve written previously, I don’t believe Swallow set out to be crooked or deceitful. It’s like some business people who start with good intentions but end up perpetrating terrible Ponzi schemes. They run into problems, associate with the wrong people, start taking shortcuts, find a need to cover things up and the end result is big trouble.

I believe, in general, that our political leaders are more honest and ethical than politicians have been historically. Today’s political leaders are more carefully watched than ever before and, as a society, we’re less forgiving of ethical slip ups. Crooked politicians don’t last long.

Might anything good come out of any of this?

Pignanelli: A conservative governor’s office acted upon a complaint filed by a liberal organization to investigate a fellow Republican and issued an incredible report. A GOP dominated Legislature could have taken the easy route and sat on the sidelines until other actions were concluded. But they demonstrated leadership and acted. The investigations authorized by House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart & team, along with support from Democrat Leader Jennifer Seelig, unequivocally demonstrated to Utah that their officials were committed to ideals beyond partisan wrangling.

Webb: When a politician violates campaign or ethics regulations, the knee-jerk reaction is to toughen the laws even more. But, remember, the regulations worked in this case. Swallow violated some of them, and is gone this week. Stringent campaign finance and ethics laws always have unintended consequences, as has been demonstrated over and over again at the federal level. Unaccountable super-PACs are the result of federal laws making it difficult to contribute to candidates and political parties. We ought to be cautious and not over-react to the Swallow scandals.

Who are the strongest contenders to replace Swallow?

Pignanelli and Webb: The opportunity to become the state's chief legal officer at minimal cost and effort is enticing to a lot of excellent attorneys. The new attorney general must be someone who will command respect and restore instant credibility and integrity to the office.

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