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.
"While I don't think the news will immediately change the partisan balance in the state of Utah, I do think it will cause Utahns to take a closer, more careful look at the candidates for attorney general," Karpowitz said.
Stormont said he hopes the campaign now will focus more on reforms he's been calling for, including a state ethics office where allegations can be reported by both citizens and government employees, as well as new safeguards.
The larger issue raised by Tuesday's arrests, he said, is whether the attorney general's race should become nonpartisan, similar to a school board election.
"I think more than anything it highlights the danger of politics in the attorney general's office and how we need to make sure the office is focused on practicing law and not concerned with political maneuvering," Stormont said.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, tried and failed to get legislation passed in the 2014 Legislature that would have allowed voters to decide if the attorney general should be appointed rather than elected.
Weiler said he may try again, but likely not until the cases against Shurtleff and Swallow are resolved. He said that would help the public understand what he sees as a need for a change.
But that's not because Utah is seen as a Republican state, Weiler said.
"You could say because this is a one-party state, they could get away with it. Well, they didn't get away with it," the state senator said. "It shows that no one's above the law, and justice will be leveled."
House Minority Assistant Whip Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake, said the House investigation couldn't have happened without Republicans who "were really focused on the integrity of the institution and the integrity of public office."
Where the partisan split comes, she said, is over how to address issues such as limiting the size of campaign contributions. Chavez-Houck and other Democrats have unsuccessfully pushed to cap the amount politicians can accept.
A member of the House committee that investigated Swallow, she said there may be more willingness to tackle issues related to ethics since both Republicans and Democrats now need to regain public confidence.
Voters are "looking at Republicans and Democrats with an equal bit of caution," Chavez-Houck said. "We all have to prove ourselves. I don't want to rely on this misstep as the reason why you should vote for a Democrat."19 comments on this story
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said it might be time to revive a group like the Governor's Commission on Strengthening Utah's Democracy.
Jowers, an adviser to Herbert, served as head of the commission created by former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. The commission recommended campaign contribution limits and attempted to look at ethics until lawmakers intervened.
"I think it would be worthwhile for our state leaders to consider creating another similar commission,which would finally review ethics," Jowers said. "We need to protect public officials from themselves."
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