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State lawmakers likely to discuss Attorney General John Swallow's troubles

Published: Friday, July 3 2015 4:43 p.m. MDT

This Jan. 7, 2013 file photo shows Utah Attorney General John Swallow, left, being sworn in by Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant, right, at the Utah Sate Capitol Rotunda, in Salt Lake City. With nothing coming from the federal investigation so far and new accusations emerging last week, Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund said, questions are rising as to how effective Swallow, a Republican, can be as attorney general. (Rick Bowmer, AP) This Jan. 7, 2013 file photo shows Utah Attorney General John Swallow, left, being sworn in by Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant, right, at the Utah Sate Capitol Rotunda, in Salt Lake City. With nothing coming from the federal investigation so far and new accusations emerging last week, Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund said, questions are rising as to how effective Swallow, a Republican, can be as attorney general. (Rick Bowmer, AP)

SALT LAKE CITY — Issues related to embattled Utah Attorney General John Swallow will bubble up at the state Capitol on Wednesday as lawmakers convene for the first time since the 2013 Legislature adjourned in March.

While some of those matters will be discussed in open meetings, the big question of whether the Legislature should consider impeachment will likely be broached behind close doors in the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund said he expects Swallow to be on senators' minds, even though he's not on the GOP Senate caucus agenda.

"I'll sure be surprised if there's not quite a bit of discussion," the Monroe Republican said.

With nothing coming from the federal investigation so far and new accusations emerging last week, Okerlund said, questions are rising as to how effective Swallow, a Republican, can be as attorney general.

"The more rumors, the more innuendo, the more stories and everything that's out there, it has got to be affecting the office," he said, adding that it's important for the state to have an effective attorney general.

"My thoughts are we need to clear this up as quickly as possible," Okerlund said. "If we don't see some determination made by the federal government, we're going to have to start those discussions."

One political observer agrees that the Legislature might have to step in sooner than later.

"For a long time it was an easy answer of, 'We're going to wait and see what the feds do on this investigation,'" said Kirk Jowers, head of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

"But now that that's taken so much longer, there's increasing pressure on the Legislature to do something," he said.

After new allegations against Swallow surfaced last week, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said all options are on the table, including impeachment.

Under the Utah Constitution, impeachment begins in the House with a two-thirds majority vote. The Senate would then conduct a trial, acting as judge and jury.

Swallow is the subject of an ongoing federal investigation related to his dealings with indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson, as well as other entrepreneurs. He has two complaints pending against him with the Utah State Bar. Also, the lieutenant governor's office intends to appoint special counsel investigate alleged election law violations.

Swallow has maintained, mostly through his public spokesman as allegations arise, that he has done nothing wrong.

"The Swallow saga really has become worst-case scenario for everyone," Jowers said, adding that there's no peace of mind for him or for Utahns.

"It all makes it very difficult for him to do his job, which is to go and investigate other people who may have done something wrong," he said. "And that cloud of suspicion is absolutely disabling for him."

Swallow spokesman Paul Murphy takes issue with Jowers calling the attorney general disabled. He said Swallow is in the office every day making decisions and working with attorneys and the staff.

"We are convicting people, filing lawsuits, defending the state from lawsuits and going about the state's business," Murphy said.

While legislators might not openly talk about impeachment Wednesday, the Government Operations Interim Committee will discuss at least two issues that have arisen as a result of the allegations against Swallow.

The Legislature rushed on the last day of the 2013 session to amend a law that would have allowed the attorney general to investigate himself when accused of violating the state elections code. The change allows the lieutenant governor's office, which oversees Utah elections, to appoint a special counsel when the complaint involves the attorney general.

Lawmakers consider it a stopgap measure and will discuss whether the process for evaluating elections complaints needs to be revamped.

That new law came into play last week when Lt. Gov. Greg Bell announced he would appoint special counsel to investigate whether Swallow failed to disclose several personal business interests on his campaign finance reports.

The Alliance for a Better Utah filed a 12-count petition in March accusing Swallow of filing misleading or false campaign declaration and disclosure forms, conducting campaign activities from his state office during and after business hours, and putting campaign funds to personal use.

The elections office dismissed nine of the counts but determined three of them, including whether Swallow should have disclosed his involvement in a consulting firm and a family trust, warrant further investigation.

Sen. Todd Weiler's proposal to consider making attorney general an appointed rather than elected position is also on the committee agenda.

The Woods Cross Republican said he wants to remove fundraising and politicking from the state's top law enforcement job. Some of the allegations leveled at Swallow make it a good time to discuss the issue, Weiler said.

Jowers said Utah's campaign finance laws are not set up to allow the attorney general to be as effective as possible because they permit unlimited giving by corporations and other donors.

"They're probably going to be inspired to give for protection or worse," he said.

Utah could help itself by setting reasonable contribution limits, especially in the attorney general's office, or allowing the governor to appoint that position, Jowers said.

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