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In our opinion: Restoring confidence in the Utah attorney general's office

Published: Friday, April 25 2014 6:31 p.m. MDT

Utah State Capitol.

Richard Bart Green, Don Green, Deseret News Archives

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The Utah attorney general’s office originally called for an independent investigation into allegations surrounding former attorney general Mark Shurtleff in order to remedy any possible misconduct, including the way the criminal prosecution of Marc Sessions Jenson was handled.

That investigation, conducted by former federal judge and current University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell and former acting U.S. Attorney for Utah Francis Wikstrom, has turned up what they call conduct that “defies explanation.” They recommend the attorney general’s office now agree to a court hearing on a petition filed by Jenson, alleging improper actions by Shurtleff and Swallow. Such a hearing, they said, would be important for public confidence in the way the case was handled.

That is sound advice.

Restoring public confidence in the attorney general’s office, which wields enormous prosecutorial power, ought to be of utmost concern. That was given an added sense of urgency by the recent resignation of Shurtleff’s successor and former chief deputy, John Swallow, amid a cloud of allegations.

Even though Salt Lake and Davis counties already are conducting an ongoing investigation that includes the two former attorneys general, it is important for the state to do its part to thoroughly and publicly air the evidence.

As the report notes, neither Shurtleff nor Swallow agreed to give their side of events, on the advice of their attorneys. While that may be understandable, given the ongoing nature of investigations into their conduct, the report said, “their unwillingness to meet with us means that many serious allegations regarding their conduct in the Jenson matter remain unanswered.”

Among the troubling things the report notes is how Shurtleff apparently ignored the recommendations of members of his staff and instead participated in a back channel of direct communications with Jenson that led to an initial offer of a lenient plea agreement, which subsequently was rejected by a judge.

Again, the report notes, because Shurtleff wouldn’t talk “we do not know his motivation…” Cassell and Wikstrom add, “As former prosecutors, we find his actions and decisions quite hard to understand or to rationalize.”

Utahns should be relieved to know that Cassell and Wikstrom concluded that the fraud case against Jenson, which ultimately resulted in his imprisonment, was not prejudiced by the way he was prosecuted. Jenson is seeking a release from prison because he alleges Swallow and Shurtleff were pressuring him for money and favors.

However, Utahns ought to be concerned about the level of uncertainty that remains about the way the public’s business was handled in this case, as well as by other actions, too numerous to recount here, that the report says are “quite hard to understand.”

Shurtleff has said he is anxious to “fully set the record straight.” Jenson, through is attorney, also has expressed a strong desire to get facts into the open. The current attorney general, Sean Reyes, ought to agree to a court hearing on Jenson’s petition, not only to satisfy the parties involved, but to let the public know that such allegations against the state’s top elected prosecutor will be thoroughly investigated.

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