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Senate president questions need for more Swallow investigations

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 8:26 a.m. MDT

The Utah Senate president says the decision by federal authorities not to indict Attorney General John Swallow takes the air out of the other investigations aimed at the state's top law enforcer. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) The Utah Senate president says the decision by federal authorities not to indict Attorney General John Swallow takes the air out of the other investigations aimed at the state's top law enforcer. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Senate president says the decision by federal authorities not to indict Attorney General John Swallow takes the air out of the other investigations aimed at the state's top law enforcer.

Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, questioned the need for those other probes to continue, including one by the House special investigative committee that's estimated to cost $3 million.

"Everybody thought he should go because he was a crook and there was a lot of illegal things done. With this investigation, there's no charges, so I think a lot of that diminishes and kind of goes away over time," Niederhauser said.

Swallow and former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff learned through their lawyers Thursday that the U.S. Department of Justice would not file criminal charges against them after a monthslong investigation into allegations of influence peddling.

"Obviously, it doesn't settle the whole thing, but it settles a lot of it," Niederhauser said. "Does it really warrant a lot of further investigation?"

The senate president said he assumes the DOJ did a thorough job and had access to all the information it needed. He questions the need for the House to move forward, though he said he didn't want be critical of its investigation.

"The House pulled that trigger. It's hard once you've fired. You have to continue on with it," Niederhauser said.

Lawmakers, he said, are responsible to the public to thoroughly look at the issues surrounding the attorney general.

"It does cost a little bit of money, but that's our system," Niederhauser said. "We want to make sure everything is clear."

The public still wants answers about Swallow, said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. But he said there is also concern about the cost.

"I think it's difficult for the House of Representatives because you have first the news coming in of how expensive the investigation will be," Jowers said, referring to reports the lead attorney hired is being paid $740 an hour.

With the news that Shurtleff and Swallow won't face federal charges, the remaining investigations, especially the one now underway by the House, have "to be much more efficient, perhaps much more timely," he said.

It remains to be seen whether House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, suffers politically, Jowers said. Lockhart gave House members the option of starting impeachment proceedings, but they chose to proceed only with an investigation.

"I think her hand was forced," Jowers said, because of the expectation that the Justice Department would move faster. "They didn't, and the public opinion seemed to be really ramping up against Swallow and for something to be done."

Even now, Jowers said Utahns have "a big appetite to get to the bottom of everything." Whether a House investigation "was the right solution, I guess we'll find out once we get the results back," he said.

Lockhart said it would not have been better for the House to wait until the federal probe was completed to consider whether to proceed with its own investigation, now getting underway.

"Our duty is to protect the public trust. There are still outstanding questions and the need to understand the facts surrounding the allegations," the House speaker said.

She said the federal government's decision not to file charges in the case "has no effect" on the House's work.

"Remember, there are other criminal investigations proceeding," Lockhart said.

The speaker dismissed any suggestion she could be hurt politically by the decision.

"I'm not going to speculate," Lockhart said. "That's not frankly one of the considerations I have. I'm trying to do what I believe is right and what is right for the people of Utah."

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said while Swallow might be seen in a better light, the House investigative committee and other entities are looking at separate issues.

"I don't see this as a defeat for Democrats or Republicans. I see this as the system working," he said. "I think we'll see where things shake out from here."

Maryann Martindale, head of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, said Swallow may want to see the federal government's decision hurt the other investigations.

"It shouldn't, because they have nothing in common — except for John Swallow," Martindale said.

She predicted the attorney general won't "ever escape the cloud that this has put over the entire office."

Jowers said even though Swallow has avoided the "doomsday" scenario of facing federal charges while in office, there's little chance he could win re-election. And, Jowers said, the attorney general could still end up being forced out of office.

The ongoing investigations, he said, could still potentially lead to criminal charges. Though the DOJ investigation is over, the Salt Lake and Davis county attorneys continue to investigate Swallow and Shurtleff with help from the FBI.

Also, the state elections office is looking into whether Swallow violated campaign financial disclosure laws. Swallow also is the subject of two complaints with the Utah State Bar.

"As long as that's even a shadow of a possibility," Jowers said of Swallow facing charges, "everything's open, from impeachment, resignation, to a grand show of a final stand."

Contributing: Richard Piatt

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