State treasurer candidate Richard Ellis asked the Utah Supreme Court Tuesday to force Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert to take action before the June 24 primary on allegations his opponent illegally offered him a job in exchange for dropping out of the race.
"I think it's only fair to voters. They have a right to know if this is a valid complaint," Ellis told the Deseret News. "The state treasurer is an office where you could be susceptible to lots of bribes and kickbacks."
His primary opponent, Rep. Mark Walker, R-Sandy, has denied the allegations, although he said he told Ellis that if elected he would not fire anyone currently working in the state treasurer's office including Ellis, who serves as chief deputy state treasurer.
"The way he is escalating this smells of some desperation," Walker said. "The only person getting beat up here is me ... I think he's dragging this along because he doesn't want to get into the real issues of the race."
According to the petition Ellis filed late Tuesday with the state's high court, Ellis received an e-mail from a mutual acquaintance of both Ellis and Walker that stated, "Looks like he wants to offer you $160k a year to be his Deputy!" Ellis now earns $104,000 annually.
On two occasions, the petition stated, Ellis said he and Walker discussed what he understood to be an offer to withdraw his candidacy in exchange for becoming Walker's deputy state treasurer at the higher salary.
At their second meeting, according to the petition, Ellis said Walker told him not to worry about getting legislative approval for the pay raise because he could "make it happen" and suggested ways to "conceal it" from unfavorable attention.
The petition stated that Ellis said he notified the mutual acquaintance that state law forbid the offer and later told Walker that he was declining it. Walker fell just short of winning the GOP nomination at the party's state convention last month.
Walker said he never talked about a pay raise for Ellis. "I wanted to make it very clear I would not fire him or his staff," Walker told the Deseret News. "It never went beyond not firing anyone."
Ellis said that if his allegations against Walker end up being referred by the lieutenant governor to Attorney General Mark Shurtleff for possible prosecution, a special counsel from outside Shurtleff's office should be appointed.
Shurtleff is actively supporting Walker, as are other Republican leaders.
"That's an obvious conflict," Ellis said, noting that any efforts by the attorney general's staff to maintain independence could fail. "They still have the potential to be influenced because this is highly political," he said.
Shurtleff's Democratic opponent in the attorney general's race, Jean Welch Hill, agreed special counsel should be appointed.
"I don't see how you can guarantee a fair vetting in the AG's office when the AG is obviously so close to Mr. Walker and so biased in this campaign," Welch said. "It's a matter of building public trust."
Paul Murphy, Shurtleff's spokesman, said he didn't want to speculate on whether lawyers would be brought in from outside the Attorney General's Office to deal with the complaint since it has not yet been referred there.
Murphy said "if there's a perception or if there is a conflict, there are ways to have people 'firewalled' off so they won't have any influence from or feel any influence from the people in charge."
Herbert announced Friday he was postponing action on the complaint until after the state's June 24 primary out of concern "any action on my part at this time could influence participation in or the outcome of" the election because of early voting.
As the state's chief election officer, Herbert is responsible for reviewing election complaints to determine if they warrant further investigation by prosecutors, either at the state or local level.
Joe Demma, the lieutenant governor's chief of staff, said it wasn't clear the court could order Herbert to take action in the case. "I don't think they can," Demma said. "I think he's acting well within his jurisdiction."
Herbert continues to decline to elaborate on his earlier statement. "I think he's made it pretty clear he's not going to be saying anything about it until two weeks from today," Demma said.
Ellis' attorney, Chandler Thompson, said the lieutenant governor has until Friday to respond and then it will be up to high court to decide whether to hold a hearing or simply rule on the request.State Treasurer Ed Alter announced last year he would not seek re-election after 28 years in the state's top financial spot and endorsed Ellis, who has also served in the administrations of several Republican governors.