SANDY — Embattled Utah Attorney General John Swallow made a surprise appearance Saturday in front of fellow Republican leaders, asking for their patience as the allegations against him are investigated.
“I want you to know that I feel really badly for the firestorm that’s out there right now and I can imagine how many of you must feel about that,” Swallow told members of the state GOP central committee at their quarterly meeting.
He repeated his belief that he will be exonerated and said if he felt otherwise, he would not put his state, family and party through the past months. "I would not be standing before you today if I thought I was merely delaying the inevitable," Swallow said.
The attorney general — the subject of federal, state and local investigations including a new probe by the Utah House — said he has done everything he could to mitigate their impact, including calling immediately for an inquiry.
But his words appeared to have little impact on many of the nearly 200 state party leaders. Swallow received seemingly polite applause from the group gathered in the Salt Lake Community College Sandy campus auditorium.
Lisa Shepherd, a central committee member from Utah County, said after Swallow's first address to party leaders since the controversy started shortly after he took office in January, she still wants Swallow to resign.
"He's not been responsive for six months and not shown up to one meeting," Shepherd said. She called his 18-minute speech "a great political PR move" but said it failed to earn him any support.
Rep. David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain, also noted the lukewarm reaction to Swallow.
"He kind of got a 'golf clap' at the end," Lifferth, a member of the House conservative caucus, said. A speech now, however, may be too little too late to win over party leaders. "It'll take the facts at this point," the lawmaker said.
Still, Lifferth said, Swallow needed to make the effort.
"I think it would have been worse had he not been here," Lifferth said. "I think it would be an indication he didn't have confidence in his fellow Republicans," including the call by House Republicans on Wednesday for an unprecedented investigation into Swallow.
Swallow told the party leaders he was “humbled” by the decision to launch a legislative investigation into the impact the allegations have had on the public trust in the attorney general’s office, rather than begin official impeachment discussions.
He said he hoped the work of the legislative committee that will investigate him, set to be determined at a special session of the House on July 3, wouldn’t be “too duplicative” or too expensive.
During his speech, he distributed a copy of a two-page memo sent Tuesday to lawmakers refuting some of the allegations that have been made, including that he helped broker a deal for an indicted Utah businessman seeking to halt a federal investigation into his company.
“Consider the source,” Swallow said of the allegations, which come mainly from that businessman, Jeremy Johnson, and an imprisoned swindler, Marc Sessions Jenson. Other allegations, he said in the memo, are "politically motivated."
He also said the attorney general's office is receiving only one or two calls a week about the allegations, and that morale among the state's attorneys has not been affected.
Swallow said steps were taken even before he was sworn in at the beginning of the year to better screen donors and others who want to meet with him, to avoid "situations that compromise public opinion or the integrity of the office."
All state officials are expected to update the central committee members, which include party leaders from around the state, at their meetings. Many officials, however, send surrogates to speak.
Swallow’s spokesman, Paul Murphy, said on Friday that the attorney general had not decided whether to address the meeting.
“I felt like they deserved to hear from me about any questions they may have had,” Swallow told reporters after his speech. “I think people want to hear from me and they want to see how I’m doing.”
He said he thought he was “received really warmly.”
Also Saturday, central committee members gave the go-ahead to new state GOP Chairman James Evans to start work on an initiative petition drive to protect the current caucus and convention system for nominating candidates.
Some concerns were raised about trying to counter the "Count My Vote" initiative petition drive to change the nomination system already planned by a group of prominent Republicans, including former Gov. Mike Leavitt.
Their initiative is expected to recommend either a way for candidates to bypass the current system and still get onto a primary ballot or scrapping the system entirely for an open party primary or a California-style primary, where the two top vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party.
"That's the only weapon left to them," said Jared Jardine, a central committee member from Orem, comparing launching a counter initiative to battling adversaries armed with swords and sticks without using available guns.
Jardine suggested the party push for legislation to protect the current system, in which delegates are elected at caucus meetings and go on to choose candidates at party conventions.
Others, though, said they liked the idea of the party getting out and collecting signatures to qualify for a spot on the 2014 general election ballot for what is already being called the "My Vote Counts" initiative.
"We need a strong grassroots strategy," said Adrielle Herring, a central committee member from Orem.
The details of the party initiative will be put together by a new committee, which will also consider ways to tie caucus participation to the vote threshold candidates have to meet at convention to avoid a primary.
"The party is being measured as they move forward," Evans said. "As the details emerge, you'll start seeing more ownership of it."
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