I think the attorney general's office needs a fresh start. It's a turnaround. It's a situation where we have a fine group of people doing a fine job who have been driven in the wrong direction for too long. It's critical to have a clean break with the past. —Former Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilkins
SALT LAKE CITY — Embarassing. Moving in the wrong direction. In need of leadership, increased transparency and a restoration of public trust.
These were phrases spoken at a debate Wednesday by the seven candidates vying to replace former Attorney General John Swallow, who resigned earlier this month amid findings he violated campaign finance disclosure laws and accusations of influence peddling.
The pack of Republican lawyers didn't vary much in their political and philosophical positions, and though they danced around referencing Swallow directly, they were all in agreement that it's time to clean house in the office he left behind.
The GOP State Central Committee will meet Saturday to select three of the candidates for Gov. Gary Herbert's consideration. The person he picks to take the attorney general's seat would face election in 2014 to fill the remaining two years Swallow's term.
Two of the candidates, acting attorney general Brian Tarbet and former Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilkins, reaffirmed they won't run to keep the job if appointed.
"I think the attorney general's office needs a fresh start. It's a turnaround," Wilkins said in his opening remarks. "It's a situation where we have a fine group of people doing a fine job who have been driven in the wrong direction for too long. It's critical to have a clean break with the past."
One question submitted to the group asked whether they would be a "caretaker" or a "future campaigner" if appointed, a question raised by two political groups earlier this week.
Wilkins said he prefers the moniker of "full-time attorney general," whose primary interest would be preparing the office for another qualified Republican candidate, adding later that he would support any of the other candidates in their campaigns.
Swallow's GOP primary election opponent Sean Reyes; Salt Lake attorney Bret Rawson; Robert Smith, BYU International Center for Law and Religion studies managing director; and Michelle Mumford, BYU law school assistant dean of admissions, argued that otherwise the attorney general's office will have seen too many leaders in too short a time.
"We need a leader now, not a caretaker," Rawson said, adding that reform will take time. "Think about it this way: Four bosses in just a couple of years in any business would destroy that business. Morale would be in the tank."
The group turned to their extensive resumes to answer questions from Internet audiences around the state about their qualifications, what skills will help them clean up the office and respond to concerns about a coverup.
Those concerns are well placed, Tarbet said, explaining that the attorney general's office has provided more than 28,000 documents to the House investigative committee reviewing accusations against Swallow.
Mumford responded critically to Tarbet's answer and called for continued scrutiny.
"Twenty-eight thousand documents is actually the opposite of transparency," Mumford said. "We need somebody in there to conduct a review. Which cases have defendants, have witnesses, have complainants, have victims who might be connected to the administrations before us (and the donations they received)."
In closing arguments, Burns took a swing at some of his opponents by saying no one connected to the investigations or accusations surrounding Swallow are strong candidates to fill the position he vacated.
Both Mumford and Rawson are tied to one Swallow accuser. Mumford's husband, Marcus Mumford, represents imprisoned businessman Marc Jenson. Rawson has worked with Marcus Mumford on the Jenson case.
Other questions posed to the candidates included their philosophies for interpreting law, their position on the Defense of Marriage Act and Utah's Amendment 3, and what they would do with regards to the state's battle to reclaim land scooped up by the federal government.