Swallow committee winding down as Attorney General race heats up
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — A special Utah House committee created to investigate former Attorney General John Swallow appears ready to pull the plug on its four-month inquiry as the race to replace him heats up.
Friday, Brian Tarbet, the general counsel for the attorney general's office who was named by Herbert to oversee the office until Swallow's successor is selected, jumped into the race.
He was among nine candidates who met the Friday filing deadline for entering the race to be among the three candidates for attorney general that will be chosen Dec. 14 by the Republican Party's state central committee.
It's up to Gov. Gary Herbert which candidate will take over as attorney general until the next election, in November 2014, for the remainder of Swallow's term. The embattled GOP official stepped down Monday.
Tarbet, a retired Utah National Guard adjutant general, had declined earlier in the week to say whether he would run. Friday, he said he'd decided to get into this race but won't run again in 2014.
Even so, he declined to call himself a caretaker candidate.
"We don't need a caretaker. We need a leader. I don't intend to tread water. I don't intend to stand pat," Tarbet said. "My interest is in serving free of politics as much as I can for the next year and then I move on."
He said while Republicans who want to have an incumbent running in 2014 have a "valid concern," the focus needs to be on repairing the damage done to the office. "It's in their best interests to get the office fixed."
Also Friday, attorneys for the House committee filed motions in 3rd District Court to withdraw nine subpoenas issued in October and November. The recipients, including to Swallow's campaign strategist Jason Powers and the payday loan company where he once worked, were fighting to quash the orders.
The nine-member bipartisan committee is scheduled to meet Saturday to start winding down as Chairman Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said shortly after Swallow resigned.
Dunnigan said he expects committee members will meet in closed session to talk about "legal matters," but discuss "where we go from here" in open session. The panel intends at some point to issue a report, which might include recommendations for changes to state campaign finance laws, to the full House.
Though the House panel, which has spent about $1.5 million to date, seems poised to wrap up, the information it has gathered could be turned over to the ongoing joint county investigation of Swallow.
Salt Lake County Attorney Sim Gill and Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings could also pursue the same subpoenas the committee is dropping as part of their criminal probe. They already have access to a state elections office report that found evidence that Swallow broke state election laws. The state declined to pursue a civil case because Swallow stepped down.
While legislative general counsel John Fellows has said Swallow was the only target of the House inquiry, the county investigation is not bound to looking only at the former attorney general.
The House committee interviewed at least 140 witnesses and issued 15 subpoenas, though it appears most of the subpoena went unanswered.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said he believes Republicans can't wait for the House committee's New York-based lead counsel, Steve Reich, to get out of town. He called Reich "quite extraordinary by Utah standards."
"We're used to a little bit of slapping people on the back and saying, 'Well, we'll work this out.' He was not that way at all. I think there's a lot of people that are thrilled that he's going to be heading back East in short order. There's a lot of stuff that's going to be swept under the rug," said Dabakis, who also serves as a state senator.
Reich made only one detailed public presentation to the committee, but it was a bombshell. He reported investigators found electronic data missing from Swallow's cell phone and laptop and desktop computers, and suggested it might have been deliberately deleted.
Accusations of influence peddling and campaign finance violations dogged Swallow during his 11-month tenure as attorney general. He has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing. He said he resigned because he couldn't compete financially with the House investigation that he believed was out to get him.
The candidates who want to replace Swallow include three with connections to his chief accusers, two that have not committed to running again next year, and Swallow's 2012 GOP primary election opponent, Sean Reyes.
"I don't feel entitled. But I was the only one who ran and put myself and my family and my time and resources on the line," Reyes said. "There was a reason I ran. My vision for what the office should be hasn't changed."
Reyes, who said he would run again in 2014, said the attorney general's office has "been too political for many years and needs to be first and foremost a law office, not a political office."
He said an attorney general seen as "a placeholder or a caretaker is, in my mind, too disruptive....I feel strongly we ought to find somebody who's ready to lead immediately and committed to campaigning secondarily."
Scott Burns, a former Iron County attorney who is stepping down as executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said Friday he would not rule out a run in 2014.
Burns had said it would be too difficult to ramp up for a campaign and clean up what he called the mess left behind. But Friday he said he'd been encouraged to reconsider that position.
"I would never say never," Burns said. "I just wanted to emphasize that whoever does this cannot, on Day One, go into campaign mode."
Another candidate, retired Utah Supreme Court Justice Micheal Wilkins, said in an email to central committee members that he was putting aside any personal ambition to run again to provide a "calming and steady hand" to the office.
Candidate Brent Ward, a former U.S. Attorney for Utah, recently withdrew as lead prosecutor in the criminal case against Jeremy Johnson, a St. George businessman who accused Swallow of influence peddling.
And both Michelle Mumford, the assistant dean of admissions at the BYU law school and the state Republican Party secretary, and Bret Rawson, are tied to another Swallow accuser.
Mumford's husband, Marcus Mumford, represents imprisoned businessman Marc Jenson. Rawson has worked with Marcus Mumford on the Jenson case.
Robert Smith and Stephen Sorenson also filed for attorney general just before the 5 p.m. deadline.
Smith, the managing director of the BYU International Center for Law and Religon Studies, said he was making his first bid for elected office because the attorney general needs to be more proactive on protecting traditional marriage and other issues.
"It's important that the attorney general work with others to try and come up with a solution that will preserve the rights of religious persons to continue to have a traditional family without being viewed as closed-minded," Smith said.
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