Jay Evensen: Be careful when changing Utah's attorney general system
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
Ushers won’t let you sleep in the galleries of our nation’s Capitol.
The stranger I sat next to in the Senate last week, not doubt weary from walking to points of interest and standing in lines on a muggy afternoon, closed his eyes as New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte prepared to speak. A Capitol usher quickly snapped her fingers and whispered harshly that there was “no sleeping in the gallery.”
You could draw more than one observation here. When it comes to witnessing Washington’s dysfunction in the face of runaway entitlement costs, perhaps finger-snapping ushers should be on the floor instead of in the gallery.
But I prefer instead to see a metaphor about voters trying to stay focused when it comes to certain officeholders, which leads me from Washington to Utah.
Utahns are not used to seeing elected officials, even former ones, doing perp walks. That’s a good thing. Perp walks — in which high-profile political figures are taken into custody as “perpetrators” and paraded in front of reporters — are signs of corruption. They signal that no one is above the law, but they also signal failure within the political system itself.
For John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff, Utah’s two most recent attorneys general, walking unescorted out of a jail after a booking certainly qualifies as a statement on the part of district attorneys and investigators. So do the many charges — 10 felonies against Shurtleff and 11 felonies and two misdemeanors against Swallow.
It was enough to maybe snap some Utah voters out of a somnambulant state. More likely, however, the thing that will be snapped to attention — regardless whether Shurtleff and Swallow are convicted — is a hardy debate over the future of the attorney general’s office. Should it remain an elected office, or should it become an office the governor appoints?
A state attorney general is charged with defending the state and its laws. But as the state’s top law enforcer, he or she sometimes is expected to investigate public corruption cases within the executive branch.
Force him or her to be a politician, and you may encounter the types of bribes Shurtleff and Swallow are accused of accepting. Force him or her to be appointed by the governor, and you may create pressure not to get tough on official corruption.
Only seven states currently appoint their attorneys general. One of them is Wyoming, where the Tribune-Eagle newspaper recently editorialized in favor of changing that. “How can you expect the state’s attorney to look into the suspected wrongdoings of a governor when the governor hand-picked him or her?” the paper asked.
And yet it’s difficult for the executive branch to rely on an attorney elected by the people and beholden to campaign donors for its legal defense.
Twenty years ago, Salt Lake County encountered similar problems with its elected county attorney’s office after, among other things, a criminal investigation uncovered possible county negligence. It chose to separate the office into two — an elected district attorney who prosecutes, and an elected attorney who defends the county. But that didn’t last long, and today the elected district attorney does both jobs.
By its nature, political fundraising leads to questions about loyalties. Many candidates have, through the years, told me how distasteful it is to have to ask people for money. For the less honest, it may be tempting to ask for it from people who want something specific in return.
And yet Utahns can’t afford to overlook the dangers involved with putting the state’s top law enforcement officer under another politician, and one step removed from the public.
The most important question to answer is whether any change might have prevented the current scandal. To answer that, it’s important to keep things in context. Until now, attorney general scandals have been rare in Utah, and any system can be compromised if people behave dishonestly.
Utah needs a system most likely to keep everyone’s eyes open while the political process proceeds, whether in the gallery or on the floor. Change may sound alluring, but change for its own sake is useless.
The debate certainly is worth holding, but it should proceed cautiously.
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