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Democrats try to question Swallow, call for ethics reform

Published: Friday, July 3 2015 8:25 p.m. MDT

Utah Attorney General John Swallow speaks out Monday, Jan. 14, 2013 in his office at the State Capitol about allegations that he was involved in improper deals. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Utah Attorney General John Swallow speaks out Monday, Jan. 14, 2013 in his office at the State Capitol about allegations that he was involved in improper deals. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A Democratic lawmaker's attempt to ask embattled Utah Attorney General John Swallow some tough questions in an appropriations committee meeting Friday were headed off by a Republican senator who ruled them out of order.

Also Friday, both Democrats and Republicans discussed campaign ethics reforms, which are spurred in part by the controversy surrounding Swallow, though they went out of their way to not say that.

Meantime, the Utah Republican Party's central committee is holding its regular meeting Saturday with the controversy surrounding Swallow as a backdrop to those party discussions.

In the appropriations meeting, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, wanted to know if Swallow was familiar with state administrative rules regarding outside employment and conflicts of interest. Committee Chairman Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, called the question out of order.

"I have serious questions about the extent to which the AG's office, past and currently, is not in compliance with those rules," King said. "I think that's squarely in the wheelhouse of what we're talking about on this committee."

Thatcher agreed those issues should be looked at but said they're policy not appropriations decisions.

"I also believe there's a court of law that handles these kinds of disputes," he said. "I think if there was something that happened that was untoward, that should be shaken out in a court of law and not a political appropriations meeting."

King's questions came after Swallow told the committee the office was losing attorneys to higher paying jobs. King contended his inquiry was germane to that discussion.

Swallow's outside consulting work while serving as chief deputy attorney general came under fire earlier in the wake of allegations made against him by indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson last month.

Johnson claims Swallow helped broker a deal to bribe Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to head off a potential Federal Trade Commission lawsuit against Johnson's Internet marketing company. Reid has denied any knowledge of Johnson's case.

Swallow said all he did was introduce Johnson to Richard Rawle, the late owner the payday loan chain Check City, who had connections to federal lobbyists. Johnson and an associate paid Rawle $250,000.

Rawle kept $50,000 as his fee and paid Swallow $23,500 out of that money for consulting work he did on a Nevada cement plant project. Swallow later returned that money and asked Rawle to pay him from a different account, which he did.

Swallow also has been accused of taking campaign donations from companies in exchange for favorable treatment should they run into regulatory problems. He has strongly denied all of the allegations against him. The FBI is investigating the accusations.

Legislative Democrats proposed a series of ethics bills, something they have done year after year with little success. Republicans, who own large majorities in the Utah House and Senate, say they're open to talking about reform and plan to run their own bills.

One Democratic proposal parallels recommendations made by former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s bipartisan Commission on Strengthening Democracy in 2009. It calls for contributions by political action committees, corporations and labor organizations to be capped at $10,000 for state offices and $5,000 for legislative offices.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said it's more about Utah's system, which allows candidates to raise large sums of money from people doing business with the state, than it is about one person.

"This is not an attorney general issue. This is the way we ought to be," he said, conceding Swallow's troubles "definitely focuses us a lot more on our system."

King said Utah has created a culture where campaign contributors have come to expect to have a say in public policy decisions. Large amounts of money, he said, have an "insidious and corrupting" influence.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said lawmakers have been very proactive on ethics issues in recent years, citing efforts to create the independent ethics commission to investigate complaints against members of the Legislature, as well as new restrictions on meals and gifts.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, has a bill to create an independent ethics commission in the executive branch — governor, attorney general, state treasurer and state auditor.

"What we've done seems to be effective," said Senate President Wayne Neiderhauser.  "Of course, there's always something that might happen, and there is a process for us to deal appropriately and have public involved in that process."

The Sandy Republican said there's a "high probability" that Valentine's bill will pass this session.

Neiderhauser was less definitive on proposals to cap campaign donations, saying it has been debated before but that it could be debated again.

Neiderhauser also was careful not to mention Swallow in his comments on ethics reform. Senate Republicans, however, did familiarize themselves with the Utah's impeachment process after the allegations against Swallow surfaced and before the session started last month.

"If there comes an impeachment process, we act as judges. For us today to comment in any way upon the situation of the attorney general would be inappropriate," the Senate president said. "We need to remain as unbiased as possible if we're called on to do our constitutional duty. We believe in due process and the presumption of innocence."

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