SALT LAKE CITY — A sharp directive in the Utah Attorney General's Office warns employees to run all media inquiries through the communications director or face being fired.
Attorney General Sean Reyes issued new guidelines Monday and reiterated the office's policy for dealing with reporters. The memo comes as Reyes attempts to plug leaks and restore office morale in the wake of the scandal involving former Attorney General John Swallow.
At the same time, Reyes promised transparency in his administration after Gov. Gary Herbert appointed him to replace Swallow.
"All communications with media, or those claiming to be media, concerning the attorney general’s office, including policies, personnel, cases or any other business that takes place outside of this system are subject to immediate disciplinary actions up to and including termination," according to the memo issued Monday.
Missy Larsen, attorney general's office communications director, said Reyes is clarifying an existing policy that is consistent with other state agencies, and in particular, other law firms.
"There is no intent by our office or Attorney General Reyes to shut off media access to information about the A.G.'s office. To the contrary, it has been an emphasis by the attorney general to make himself and the office available to the media on a consistent basis," Larsen said.
Salt Lake City civil rights attorney Stewart Gollan said given the Swallow controversy and alleged backroom deals, it's concerning that the response would be to silence people rather than let them speak freely.
"I think generally that if you're concerned about a history of problematic goings on, sunlight is probably the best cure for that, not closing the doors," Gollan said.
Larsen said the office has hundreds of open cases that at any given time deal with sensitive information protected by attorney-client privilege, work product doctrine and privacy laws. They might also involve criminal investigations with confidential information about victims, witnesses, informants and investigators that could endanger them if disclosed, she said.
"Having inconsistent or inaccurate messages emanating from various sources without coordination would undermine the trust of the public and the clients of the A.G.'s office. In many cases, to have a loose policy would not only be unethical, but illegal," Larsen said.
Reyes' memo said employees should follow the new guidelines until the policy manual is updated and posted.
The manual adopted in June 2013 includes a press policy that says one of the office's official duties is to give information to the public about legal matters.
"As such, employees must be open, candid and helpful to media representatives on issues that impact state government and Utah residents. In some cases, however, control over the dissemination of information is essential because of the sensitive nature of legal matters," according to the manual.
The manual, which covers a range of personnel issues, says violation of any of the policies could be grounds for discipline, including firing.
Dwayne Baird, Utah Department of Public Safety spokesman, said most government agencies and private businesses have media policies. It doesn't have to do with hiding information as much as it does with making consistent and accurate comments, he said.
"We want the public to know what we do and how we do it," Baird said.
Contributing: Peter Samore
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: dennisromboy