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What do the charges and arrests say about Utah?

Published: Tuesday, July 15 2014 7:40 p.m. MDT

Former Utah Attorney General John Swallow leaves the Salt Lake County jail after being booked and posting bond Tuesday, July 15, 2014, in South Salt Lake City.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert called the arrests Tuesday of former Utah Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow on public corruption charges a "sad day" and a "black eye" for the state.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, who is seen as a challenger to Herbert in 2016, disagreed with the governor, saying "it's a positive thing that we hold people accountable for their actions."

The marked difference in how the two potential intraparty rivals assess the charges faced by Republicans Shurtleff and Swallow shows the impact the latest chapter in the scandal is already having on Utah politics, a state long dominated by the GOP.

"I think the real message politically is we need a two-party system that provides checks and balances," Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said. "When you've got the fox guarding the henhouse, this is what happens."

But House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, came to a different conclusion.

"No one takes any joy in these arrests today, or these charges. But one thing I take solace in is the fact the system works," Dee said, citing investigations by bipartisan members of a special House committee and law enforcement.

"It shows the people of Utah we are minding the store and we are watching," Dee said. "If one party dominated the state in this particular venue, then we would have tried to ignore or cover up something. I think the proof is in the pudding."

University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said there's more chance of corruption surfacing in states controlled by a single political party, such as Illinois, where four of the past seven governors have gone to prison.

"What happens is you usually don't have anyone challenging them from within the party," said Hagle, an active Republican. With the opposing party seen as having no chance, "you don't have that accountability. And it spirals out of control."

Scandals can lead to at least a temporary shift in the status quo, including incumbents being challenged from within their party and by a stronger minority party, Hagle said.

"They obviously have to be careful about how they use it for political advantage," he said of candidates attempting to leverage a scandal. "There's always the possibility of overplaying their hand."

Plus, Hagle said, it's not clear how voters will react to allegations of corruption.

"In Illinois and Louisiana, voters are kind of used to it and shrug their shoulders," he said. "In other places — and I think Utah would be one of them — they don't like that kind of hanky-panky."

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the Utah GOP so far hasn't been hurt by the scandal surrounding the former attorneys general.

"Party officials have strong incentives to care a lot about the reputation of the party generally," Karpowitz said. "I don't see it as a scandal for the Republican Party right now. Who knows? Maybe it could be."

He said, however, voters will scrutinize candidates more — especially in the attorney general's race, where Republican Sean Reyes faces Democrat Charles Stormont, an assistant attorney general taking a leave of absence to run.

Reyes was appointed by the governor after Swallow stepped down late last year during the House investigation but has to run for the remaining two years of Swallow's term.

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