NEPHI — Embattled Utah Attorney General John Swallow may have been a no-show at the state Republican Party's Central Committee meeting Saturday, but there was no ignoring the elephant in the room.
Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright reminded committee members of the party's platform. "We demand honesty, integrity, morality and accountability of our public officials. We will work to expose and stop corruption," Wright said, speaking at the Juab County Fairgrounds.
Wright said Swallow's challenges need to be viewed in two tracks: allowing a criminal investigation to run its course and determining whether his conduct raises ethical issues that the party needs to address.
Wright said he believes in the presumption of innocence, but added: "When you get elected to a public office, you're held to a higher standard. If some of those things happened, we need to stand for ethics reform to make sure it doesn't happen in the future."
Reforms could make it clear to a candidate that "I can't meet you at Krispy Kreme. We can't have a private meeting," Wright said, referring to a controversial meeting between Swallow and St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson that Johnson secretly recorded at an Orem doughnut shop.
During the discussion, the two discussed a financial arrangement to pay Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to derail a Federal Trade Commission investigation into Johnson's once lucrative Internet marketing company. Reid has denied any knowledge of Johnson's case.
Swallow's outside consulting work while serving as chief deputy attorney general has come under fire in the wake of allegations made against him by Johnson, who has been indicted on federal charges.
Swallow said all he did was introduce Johnson to Richard Rawle, the late owner of 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.
Aaron Gabrielson, chairman of the Wasatch County Republican Party, attempted to amend the committee's agenda Saturday to ask the Central Committee to discuss the implications of Swallow's alleged legal and ethic problems and possibly consider a party resolution. Committee members declined.
"It sounds like the committee doesn't want to talk about it because they voted it down," Gabrielson said afterward.
Gabrielson said he has gone on record calling for the attorney general's resignation. While Facebook traffic from GOP members suggests that many want to wait until a criminal investigation is completed, Gabrielson said Swallow's public statements raise significant ethics concerns.
"I don't see a lot of up-side to waiting," he said. "There's no 'good' thing that's going to come that wipes out everything we know."
The Republican Party "should not cover up for its own. We should police our own," Gabrielson added.
Wright, following the meeting, said committee members "wanted to wait and see" what the investigations unfold "before making any decisions."
Former Utah Congresswoman Enid Greene Mickelsen, addressing committee members, acknowledged: "This is difficult time for our party."
Mickelsen, who did not seek re-election to Congress after her campaign was accused of campaign finance violations, said the irony of her speaking out on this issue "is not lost on me." Her ex-husband, Joe Waldholtz, was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to reduced counts of bank fraud and campaign and tax fraud.
She urged party faithful to stay the course. "If we stick to our principles, we'll be all right," said Mickelsen, a national party committeewoman.
As a Republican elected to statewide office, Swallow is a member of the party's Central Committee. Gov. Gary Herbert also did not attend Saturday's meeting. Party officials said 110 of 180 committee members were in attendance.
Swallow has also 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.
• In other business, the Central Committee voted 58-29 to condemn statements and actions of Drew Chamberlain, the state party secretary. Chamberlain posted blogs on Utah's Clean Politics Facebook page that referred to President Obama as "Husein" (sic) and made a derogatory remark about first lady Michelle Obama's appearance.
The resolution puts Chamberlain on notice that "any future public comments or acts unbecoming a state party secretary, as determined by the State Central Committee, may result in his removal from party office."
• Committee members also supported a resolution that called on Congress to find reasonable and responsible solutions to resolve the nation's broken immigration system.
The resolution also says the party will be more proactive reaching out to Hispanics, acknowledging that their values align well with Republican values.
Marco Diaz, chairman of the Utah Republican Hispanic Assembly, said passing such a resolution likely would not have been possible two years ago.
Diaz said he has been active in Utah Republican in politics for 13 years. "I've never had as much support as I've had the last three months," he said.
But after the disappointment of the November election, Republicans know they must do a better job of reaching Latinos, women and youth, he said.
"What a great opportunity."
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company