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Proposed audit of attorney general's office would be tied to Swallow situation

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 5:06 a.m. MDT

Utah Attorney General John Swallow  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah Attorney General John Swallow (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposed audit of the Utah Attorney General's office isn't supposed to be aimed at embattled Attorney General John Swallow, but it is still expected to tie the recently elected leader to any problems found.

"There's no sense in doing the audit if we don't identify a cause," Legislative Auditor General John Schaff said Tuesday, including whether the allegations against Swallow have impacted his office since he was sworn in last January.

"Could the audit identify the cause as being administrative? I have no idea," Schaff said. "We don't even know the nature of what we will find. … Our role here is not to look at individuals, but at the office itself."

That's what members of the Legislative Audit Subcommittee said Monday before voting unanimously to ask the auditor general to come back this fall with a list of which areas of the state's massive law office deserve closer examination.

"This is not about John Swallow," Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, said Tuesday, but rather whether the attorney general's office is "running as smoothly and efficiently as it should be."

Davis said he wants to see an audit focused on identifying systemic problems in the office but acknowledged that could turn up issues created as a result of Swallow being the subject of federal, state and local investigations.

Allegations against Swallow include that he helped broker a deal for an indicted Utah businessman seeking to stop a federal investigation into his company, as well as soliciting gifts from a now-imprisoned swindler.

Last week, the Utah House created a special committee to investigate Swallow, seen as a step toward a possible impeachment. The House committee is expected to focus on whether Swallow has violated the public trust.

Swallow has already said he will cooperate with the House committee. In a statement issued Tuesday, he said he plans "to fully cooperate with the legislative auditor if the audit subcommittee authorizes an audit of the attorney general's office."

Monday's discussion about auditing the attorney general's office started with a request by Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, for an in-depth look at the entire office, with special attention given to past decisions to hire outside counsel.

But Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, pointedly asked at the meeting whether the motivation for an audit was political and said other areas of state government might be a higher priority for an audit.

"My concern was, so why are we going to do an in-depth audit on the attorney general? Is it because of the allegations against Swallow?" Niederhauser said Tuesday. "I wasn't necessarily pushing one way or the other."

The Senate leader said depending on the recommendations expected in October or November from the legislative auditor, he could support going forward with a more limited audit.

Niederhauser said the legislative auditors might be able to answer the question of whether Swallow's situation has hurt the operations of the office "more efficiently" than the newly created House committee.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who has said he would fire fellow Republican Swallow if he worked for him, told reporters recently that his cabinet has assured him work by the attorney general's office has not suffered.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said an audit would be lost among all of the other investigations underway.

"It's hard to have the attorney general's office do anything but answer questions," Burbank said.

Audits attempt to avoid politics, he said, but that may not happen in this case. Burbank said lawmakers may be better off waiting to decide whether an audit is needed while the House committee investigates.

"I'm not sure, quite honestly, what the value of an audit would be at this point," Burbank said. "Do we really need all these various investigation and audits and sorts of things into the attorney general's office?"

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