Concerns over Swallow's dealings should have been shared with voters, state leaders say

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 6 2015 5:05 p.m. MDT

Utah Attorney General John Swallow  (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Utah Attorney General John Swallow (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders said Tuesday voters should have heard more about the allegations against Utah Attorney General John Swallow before his election in November.

Their comments came a day after former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff revealed he went to federal authorities shortly before the Nov. 6 election with information that Swallow, his hand-picked successor, might be involved in an alleged bribery scandal.

Herbert said it's up to Shurtleff to explain why he chose not to share his concerns with voters. The allegations against Swallow did not surface until after he was sworn in as attorney general last month and are the subject of an ongoing federal investigation

"I expect the information was incomplete," Herbert said of what voters knew about the allegations that Swallow helped broker a deal to bribe Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Could it have been done better in hindsight? Probably, yes." 

Still, the governor wasn't sure it would have made a difference in the outcome of the election in which Swallow, a fellow Republican, easily defeated his Democratic opponent, Weber County Attorney Dee Smith.

"My crystal ball is as foggy as anybody's," Herbert said. "I think John Swallow and his qualifications and his experience as a legislator, working as the deputy in the attorney general's office, was well-qualified."

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, though, said knowing the allegations against Swallow before the election might have changed at least one vote — her own.

"If you're asking if I wish I had known, the answer is yes. Voters need information. The more information you can give them, the better equipped they are to make decisions," Lockhart said. 

The speaker said had Shurtleff raised concerns about Swallow publicly before the election, she might have voted against the GOP candidate.

"It's possible. I have to take it all in," Lockhart said, calling for Shurtleff to be held accountable for his decision.

Tuesday, Shurtleff said although he felt compelled to contact the U.S. Attorney's Office, he didn't consider pulling his support of Swallow for attorney general because the allegations were coming from a man who had been indicted.

"It didn't sound like a problem, so of course I'm going to keep supporting him. As I told Jeremy Johnson, 'Why would he pull out based on your allegations? He denies them. He will fight these allegations. He will want it cleared up.' That's the John Swallow I know," Shurtleff said.

Shurtleff said Johnson, who has been charged in federal court, called him in October urging him to convince Swallow — then Shurtleff's chief deputy — to drop out of the attorney general's race because he had information about some improprieties Swallow was involved in.

Johnson let Shurtleff listen to portions of a secretly recorded meeting between Johnson and Swallow that occurred at a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop in Orem in April. During the conversation, the two discussed a financial arrangement through which Reid would be paid off to derail a possible Federal Trade Commission complaint against Johnson's Internet marketing company.

Shurtleff said he then talked to Swallow about Johnson's claim.

"He told me everything," Shurtleff said.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, a state senator, said Republicans knew about the allegations against Swallow prior to nominating him, and Shurtleff should have disclosed the information he had before the election.

"As Democrats, we yelled, we screamed, we pleaded, we did everything and it apparently wasn't the right moment," he said.

Republicans' lack of "moral fiber" to stand up and explain what they knew to voters "shows the serious problems of having a one-party state where somebody makes a decision and everybody falls in line," Dabakis said.

For Republicans to now call for ethics reform is disingenuous, he said. Both the governor and legislative leaders have expressed support for creating an ethics panel to investigate allegations against the state's elected executive officials.

"They had the opportunity to put this information before the voters and they chose not to, and that's something they're going to have to live with," Dabakis said.

Had that happened, he said, there's no doubt the "nonpolitical, career prosecutor, bright Dee Smith would be the attorney general and we wouldn't be having these awkward, embarrassing discussions."

Senate President Wayne Neiderhauser said he's not sure what the appropriate protocol would have been for Shurtleff.

"Would it have affected the election? Possibly," the Sandy Republican said.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Shurtleff faced a difficult judgment call.

"On the one hand, it would seem to be relevant in an election and it would be information voters would want to know about," Burbank said. "On the other hand, it was only a suspicion at the time."

In the end, Burbank said, Shurtleff had little choice.

"There's the possibility of a worst-case scenario where you say something publicly and there's an investigation and it turns out there's nothing wrong, but Swallow loses the election," Burbank said. "You ruin somebody's political career when there wasn't evidence to support it."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com, lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy, dnewspolitics

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company