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Attorney General John Swallow investigative committee faces daunting job

Panel chief has ties to indicted businessman Johnson

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 12:09 a.m. MDT

Utah Attorney General John Swallow speaks to the media after a Republican House Caucus meeting  to discuss  impeachment at the Capitol  in Salt Lake City  Wednesday, June 19, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah Attorney General John Swallow speaks to the media after a Republican House Caucus meeting to discuss impeachment at the Capitol in Salt Lake City Wednesday, June 19, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A newly appointed Utah House investigative committee has a daunting task: unravel the tangle of allegations hanging over the state's beleaguered attorney general.

"This committee has a monumentally difficult job ahead of it. It has to balance public expectations with considerations of justice. It has to balance the public interest and the Legislature's responsibility," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

The first-of-its-kind panel's foray into the ongoing John Swallow saga comes in the midst of federal, state and county investigations that started months ago. Mounting frustration over the lack of conclusions or clarity from those investigations motivated lawmakers to act, said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.

But the nine-member committee composed of part-time legislators could face a host of obstacles from scheduling meetings to dealing with reluctant witnesses and extracting information from other criminal or civil investigations.

One issue that arose Thursday is the committee chairman's ties to court cases involving St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson, whose allegations touched off questions about Swallow.

Rep. Lowry Snow, a St. George-based lawyer, said neither he nor his firm represent Johnson. But he said his office, Snow Jensen & Reece, represents one of many companies whose assets were frozen in the Federal Trade Commission case against Johnson.

Snow, a Republican, said Wednesday he was not aware of anything that would impede his service on the committee. He maintained that Thursday but said he wants to meet with Lockhart and "do the right thing, whatever that is."

"I don't think that think that those constitute an issue that would affect my ability to act," he said. "But if the speaker feels differently, I'm certainly willing to abide by her wishes."

Lockhart, who appointed the bipartisan committee Wednesday, is out of town and unavailable for comment.

Regardless of who heads the panel, it faces challenges from the outset.

"To make matters more difficult, it feels like the end result that they're going for is very ambiguous. This is not an impeachment investigation, so what is it?" Jowers said.

"How aggressive should they be? How deferential should they be to the other investigations? What deference should anyone give to this committee when there isn't any clear objective in mind?"

Lockhart said she doesn't see the committee stepping on the toes of those other probes. She said she considers the House investigation on a parallel track.

"We hope that we will have cooperation between levels of government. We hope that we will be able to talk with the FBI, with the Department of Justice and work together," Lockhart said.

Those typically tight-lipped agencies don't seem likely to share information about their investigations.

In addition to the DOJ's Public Integrity Section, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings are conducting a joint investigation into Swallow and his predecessor Mark Shurtleff.

The lieutenant governor's office also intends to appoint special counsel to look into whether Swallow broke state campaign finance laws. The first-term Republican also is the subject of two Utah State Bar complaints.

Gill said he and Rawlings would have to "be very careful" about providing information to the legislative committee.

"We would not breach the confidentiality or protocol of a criminal investigation," he said.

His office and the committee are conducting two distinct inquiries and reviews, Gill said, adding his focus is narrow, while the Legislature's is broad.

"Our role is fundamentally different because we have very specific criteria. We look for statutory violations. We look for different kinds of evidence," Gill said, noting mere allegations do not rise to the level of criminal wrongdoing.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the legislative committee's work won't be easy or elegant.

One of the big concerns is conducting an inquiry as openly as possible while other investigations, which are not intended to be public, are going on, Burbank said.

"The problem here is you get the same pool of people, so it creates real difficulties in terms of who talks to which witness in which fashion and how public is it. That's going to take a fair amount of juggling," he said.

In a letter to legislative leaders this week, Swallow's attorneys asked that he be allowed to subpoena witnesses on his behalf and be present when lawmakers take witness statements or sworn testimony.

Lockhart said Congress does not afford that ability to subjects of its inquiries. "This is a legislative investigation, and we will conduct it as such," she said.

The letter also argues that the investigation runs counter to the Utah Constitution, an assertion with which Lockhart said she "absolutely and unequivocally" disagrees.

Lockhart described the investigative committee's role as fact finding. It has subpoena power and may grant immunity to witnesses. It intends to hire attorneys and investigators in the next few weeks.

Although the panel will reports its findings to the House, it will not a make a recommendation about impeachment proceedings.

The speaker appointed five Republicans and four Democrats to the committee, with Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, as chairman. Snow, a past president of the Utah State Bar, is one of two attorneys on the panel.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis questions whether the Republican-controlled committee can be trusted to do a fair job.

"It seems clear that the Republican supermajority is more interested in keeping their control than in restoring the sense of fairness and integrity that has obviously been lacking," said Dabakis, who also serves as a state senator from Salt Lake City. "This partisan committee, and how it was made up, can give Utahns little confidence that all the members of the legislature consider their constitutional duties ahead of their political consideration."

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