SALT LAKE CITY — Attorney general candidate John Swallow, Utah's lead counsel in the multistate challenge to the federal health care law, used his trip to Washington, D.C., for a U.S. Supreme Court hearing on the case to push for votes back home.
Swallow and outgoing Attorney General Mark Shurtleff spent more than an hour Tuesday evening on a telephone conference call from the nation's capital aimed at reaching Utah voters, including the GOP delegates who will decide next month whether he faces a primary election.
The call, paid for by the campaign, cost more than $5,000, Swallow's campaign manager, Jessica Fawson, said. She said more than 55,000 Utahns were invited to participate through emails and social media, and about 7,500 joined the call.
"I have a right when I'm not working to do whatever I want to do," Swallow said. "I have a right to campaign. I have a right to decide if I want to make something an official call or something to promote my candidacy."
Swallow said the state paid for his four-day trip to Washington because it was part of his official duties. The call, he said, was made after his day of monitoring the high court arguments and conferring with other attorneys ended.
"I think the call was a great thing. It let people know what we're doing back here," he said. "I feel very good about it and very appropriate about it. And I feel we're being very honest with the people of Utah."
The focus of the call, available on YouTube, is the health care case. Swallow and Shurtleff offered their analysis and took questions from several participants. Shurtleff, who is not running for re-election, also used the call to praise Swallow, calling him "an extraordinary public servant."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said while there was nothing illegal about that type of campaign activity during a trip paid for by taxpayers, it does raise ethical questions.
"It is one of these kind of gray areas," Burbank said. "When you're talking about people who are going to be the chief law enforcement officer of your state, you'd think you wouldn't want to get close to that line, as opposed to being in that murky area."
The public, he said, expects a clear distinction between what a person does as an officeholder and as a candidate even though the roles can sometimes be difficult to separate.
Burbank said Shurtleff's participation in the call was troubling.
"That raises real questions," Burbank said. "The attorney general is clearly there for official purposes. That seems to me to be a line the attorney general should stay away from."
Shurtleff dismissed those concerns.
"You can find … any talking head professor who's going to suggest impropriety," the attorney general said. "Murky. Give me a break. That's absolutely ridiculous that somebody would suggest that."
The call was made on Swallow's own time, Shurtleff said. "I see absolutely no problem with that," he said. "It was 8:30 at night for crying out loud."
One of Swallow's opponents, Weber County Attorney Dee Smith, a Democrat, was reluctant to comment about the call.
"I think those actions speak for themselves," Smith said. "I think as government officials we need to not mix our official responsibilities with our political agendas."
Swallow's GOP opponent, Sean Reyes, was meeting with delegates Wednesday and unavailable for comment.