SALT LAKE CITY — In the race to replace former Attorney General John Swallow, so far two candidates are connected to his chief accusers, two promise not to run again and one was his primary election opponent.
Those seeking the job given up Monday by Swallow, still the subject of a criminal investigation led by the Salt Lake and Davis county attorneys, have until 5 p.m. Friday to file with the state Republican Party.
The party's central committee, made up of GOP leaders from around the state, is scheduled to meet Dec. 14 to choose the three candidates whose names will be forwarded to Gov. Gary Herbert. The final choice is up to the governor.
All that state GOP Chairman James Evans will say about the selection process is that it's political. Whoever is appointed by the governor will have to run in 2014 for the remainder of Swallow's term.
"The purpose of the party is to get Republicans elected, so that's the lens through which we look," Evans said. "We have a great chance of retaining the office because I think voters tend to make decisions based on the person that's there."
Brent Ward, a former U.S. attorney for Utah who now works for the U.S. Department of Justice, withdrew Monday as lead counsel in the federal government's case against St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson.
It was Johnson who claimed shortly after Swallow took office in January that Swallow was part of an effort in 2010 to bribe Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to stop a federal investigation into Johnson's business.
Ward said while he has not heard any concerns raised about his being involved in the case as a candidate, he decided withdrawing was "best for the case and best for me," giving him the "latitude to concentrate on my message" in the race.
"I have no ties to the previous attorney general. I'm prosecuting a case that may have led to his downfall," Ward said. "That's certainly something I am proud to say."
Ward said the only time he talked with Swallow was in 2012, when Swallow asked him if he was still considering running for attorney general. Ward said he told Swallow he'd decided not to get in the race.
"I told him he could use my name," Ward said, as long as Swallow didn't mention his association with the U.S. Attorney's Office or the Justice Department. "I didn't know the guy, but I figured he would be the Republican candidate."
Asked if he was sorry now that he'd offered to help Swallow get elected, Ward said, "Sure, I am." But he said he would have done the same for any other GOP candidate.
Ward said if chosen as attorney general, he would not begin to campaign for re-election until a month before the November 2014 election and would set limits on the size and source of campaign contributions.
Bret Rawson, the first candidate to file for attorney general after Swallow announced his resignation on Nov. 21, said he sees no conflict with representing convicted criminal Marc Jenson, who has accused Swallow of influence peddling.
"Just because my work in this case has exposed information that is negative concerning the attorney general's office, all it does it compel me to speak up about cleaning it up," Rawson said.
He said he believes that if he becomes attorney general, voters in the 2014 special election would have "a degree of confidence that even before this campaign we were involved in and taking steps to clean up this office."
Other candidates, however, said the attorney general's office should be put in the hands of someone who won't seek re-election and is freed from having to focus on another race less than a year away.
Former Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilkins promised in an email to central committee members Monday he'd provide a "calming and steady hand" over the next year as a caretaker attorney general.
Wilkins said that if the new attorney general is seen as a "rehabilitator," that will be an advantage to the Republican candidate in 2014.
"It would be seen as putting the interests of the people above partisan interests," he said.
Former Iron County Attorney Scott Burns, who is leaving the National District Attorneys Association after five years as executive director, said he couldn't "deal with an office that, honestly, is just a mess" while ramping up for a campaign.
Burns said the GOP will have to decide whether it is "more important to position for a victory a year from now in November, or if it's more important to take the state's legal office that is literally bleeding from a thousand cuts and repair it."
The other candidate in the race so far is Sean Reyes, who lost to Swallow in last year's GOP primary.
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Republicans may want to avoid choosing anyone connected to Swallow.
"The cleaner they are from this whole scandal, the better off they and the attorney general's office are, regardless of whether it's a caretaker or someone who wants to the keep the job," Jowers said.
He said there are good arguments for and against a caretaker attorney general.
"It's an issue that's very worthy of debate," Jowers said. "The ultimate answer is going to be who that person is. That will be far more important than whether it's a caretaker or someone who wants to entrench herself and be there for a while."
Lisa Shepherd, a member of the central committee from Provo, said she's supporting Reyes and has concerns about both candidates seen as tied to Swallow and those who would be caretakers.
"I think there are some really good Democratic candidates," Shepherd said. "If the Republicans want to maintain the seat, my opinion is you get that person in there and you let them do a good job."
Contributing: Dennis Romboy
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