SALT LAKE CITY —Deputy Attorney General John Swallow, a GOP candidate for attorney general, told a telemarketer who has had run-ins with the state Division of Consumer Protection that he wants to move the agency under his control if elected.
"When I'm attorney general, this is kind of confidential, I'm going to try to restructure it so that consumer protection is under the AG and the AG has more authority over those investigations, in fact, complete authority over that," Swallow said in a recording posted on the City Weekly website.
The alternative weekly reported Thursday that Swallow was talking with Aaron Christner on April 7, identifying Christner as the source of the recording. He appears on the consumer protection division's "Buyer Beware List," linked to three telemarketing companies fined for soliciting customers without being registered.
Swallow also said in the recording that, "Utah is so dysfunctional right now — the client is the Department of Commerce and Consumer Protection and that is not someone we can control or even influence greatly. It's because they work for the governor's office right now."
Christner could not be reached for comment nor could Swallow, whose daughter was getting married Friday.
But Jason Powers, a campaign adviser to Swallow, said he spoke with the candidate Friday about the call.
"John doesn't recall the conversation and doesn't recall soliciting a contribution, being offered a contribution, and he didn’t accept a contribution," Powers said.
Swallow was also unaware he was being recorded by Christner and "offered to help consistent with the open door policy" of the office, Powers said. City Weekly reported that Christner mentioned an upcoming fundraising event for Swallow in their conversation, but that exchange was not part of the posted recording.
Powers said Swallow probably would not have used the word "dysfunctional" had he known the conversation would be made public and only meant that consumer protection is part of the Attorney General's Office in most other states.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who has endorsed Swallow, said he has long supported moving the consumer protection division from the Department of Commerce to his office but has not pushed the issue because "it feels like kingdom building."
Shurtleff said he wouldn't discuss Swallow's conversation with Christner. "I'm not going to say whether John made a mistake or anything else. He was talking to guy and told him how he felt."
The attorney general, who is not seeking reelection, said allegations that campaign support led to favorable treatment from his office have never been shown to be true.
"We talk to anybody and everybody. My door is open to anybody. You don't have to give me a campaign contribution," he said. "I believe people do have confidence in the office."
There has long been friction between Shurtleff and Francine Giani, the former head of the consumer protection division who now heads the commerce department and is also temporarily overseeing the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Court filings made public in 2010 included an account of Giani presenting federal agents with dealings of her department's investigation into a Utah County businessman, including that that she'd heard Shurtleff was trying to get her off the investigation.
Giani, who turned over the case to the FBI when Shurtleff declined to pursue it, had no comment about Swallow's call for moving the consumer protection division into the attorney general's office.
The commerce department issued a statement saying the current structure "provides the ability for the division to issue administrative citations for smaller cases" involving less money or individual consumers.
Gov. Gary Herbert's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, said in a statement that consumer protection "is appropriately located in the Department of Commerce. Administrative action ought to be handled by the administrative agencies and legal action," by the attorney general's office.
Swallow's GOP primary opponent, Sean Reyes, said he agreed that consumer protection should stay within the commerce department.
"It would not be wise from a logistics standpoint since the attorney general lacks the resources" to handle smaller cases, Reyes said. His goal, he said, is "to improve morale in the AG's office and make it more efficient."
Reyes said he had not listened to the recording.
"I don't know all the details," he said. "What I will say is this: As attorney general it is tremendously important to insure there is integrity and transparency in the office. It is critical for the attorney general to have the confidence of the public and transparency and integrity are essential to winning that trust."
Scott Burns, a former GOP candidate for attorney general and Iron County attorney who has been in Washington, D.C., for the past decade, said he has "serious concerns" about Swallow's conversation with the telemarketer.
Burns, currently the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said he never had those kinds of conversations in the 16 years he served as Iron County attorney.
"I always thought the attorney general's job was to protect the public, protect the consumer and not meet with these groups and see how they can help them," Burns said. "It's just something in my opinion that should not go on and it's disturbing to say the least."