SALT LAKE CITY — Legislative attorneys told a House special investigative committee to expect to be sued in what will be an expensive, prolonged inquiry into the dealings of embattled Utah Attorney General John Swallow.
In addition, the Legislature's general counsel John Fellows said the nine-member panel won't be ready to call witnesses until November or December.
"It's entirely possible during the course of this process we'll be in court," he told the committee at its history-making first meeting Tuesday. "Whatever plan we have, whatever schedule we have can be thrown topsy-turvy if someone files a lawsuit."
Swallow hasn't hinted that he would sue the committee, though his lawyers have fired off letters to the Legislature questioning the need for an investigation.
About an hour before the committee meeting, Swallow said he wonders how things got to this point.
"How in the world did I get in this perfect storm?" asked the first-term Republican. "I'm blown away that this is happening on my watch."
Swallow reiterated his innocence Tuesday and said the allegations don't stem from anything he's done in office but go back to when he was chief deputy attorney general or in private practice. And, he said, he did nothing wrong then, either.
"I ask myself how did I get in this position. I have lived an honorable life," he said on KSL NewsRadio's "The Doug Wright Show."
Fellows earlier estimated the investigation could cost as much as $3 million and costs will "escalate and escalate quickly" if the committee is sued.
Litigation, he said, has been used in other states to block an investigative committee's work or challenge its authority. It's also possible that those who receive subpoenas to testify could fight them in court.
Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said there is no spending limit on the investigation.
"If there is a cap, I suppose it is that we have to answer to the taxpayers," he said after the meeting.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, appointed the bipartisan panel last month to gather facts about allegations that have surfaced against the attorney general since he took office in January. Fellows said it is not an impeachment committee. However, its finding could be used to consider impeachment.
Swallow, a former House member, said he has "worries and concerns" about how the committee will conduct its investigation. He said he doesn't want it to turn into a "witch hunt" that "fuels the fire of a media frenzy." He also said he hopes it gets done quickly.
"My goodness, I want this over yesterday," he said.
Dunnigan expects the House investigation to take months, not weeks.
"We want this process to be thorough and to be fair, and to do that it's going to take some time," he said, acknowledging it could spill into the Legislature's next general session starting late January 2014.
Dunnigan emphasized that committee members are not investigators.
The panel intends to hire an out-of-state law firm from among 10 finalists, which include some of the nation's largest and most prestigious firms, to work as its legal counsel. The lawyers and their investigators will interview witnesses and gather evidence under the committee's direction. Panel members also will be able to question witnesses in open meetings.
A formal investigation of a statewide elected official is uncharted territory for the Utah House.
"You're making history," Fellows said. "There really hasn't been anything like this investigative committee before."
Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for Better Utah, expressed frustration at the investigation's slow pace. Better Utah filed a complaint with the state alleging Swallow broke state campaign finance laws. It also alleges professional misconduct in a Utah State Bar complaint.
"It's just dragging on," she said. "He's being investigated every which way and it just continues to erode the public trust."
Swallow is under investigation at several levels of government.
The Department of Justice Public Integrity Section is investigating Swallow's relationship with indicted St. George online marketer Jeremy Johnson and imprisoned businessman Marc Sessions Jenson.
Johnson claims Swallow helped broker an attempt to bribe a U.S. senator to thwart a federal investigation into Johnson's Internet company. Jenson contends Swallow sought a stake in a failed luxury resort project in exchange for favorable treatment by the attorney general's office.
"Why is the media and the Legislature giving so much credence to allegations of these types of people?" Swallow said.
In addition to the DOJ, 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 hired the law firm Snell & Wilmer to look into whether Swallow broke state campaign finance laws. The first-term Republican also is the subject of two Utah State Bar complaints.
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