SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers will rush to change a law Thursday that allows the attorney general to investigate himself when a someone alleges violations of the Utah elections code.
After the two people filed a complaint against Attorney General John Swallow last week, the State Elections Office became aware of a gap in the law, according to elections director Mark Thomas. The complaint also requested the appointment of special counsel to investigate the claims.
“If we determine a special investigation is necessary, the statute requires the State Elections Office to refer complaints to the attorney general’s office, and further mandates that the attorney general’s office investigate,” Thomas said. “Under the current law, we have no choice but to turn the complaint over to the attorney general’s office, even when the attorney general is the subject of the complaint."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the lieutenant governor's office, which oversees elections, brought the problem to the Legislature's attention Tuesday and "we are taking steps to correct that conflict in the statute."
Lawmakers have drafted a bill, SB289, that would allow the lieutenant governor to appoint special counsel to investigate elections complaints "when and only when" the allegations involve the attorney general. The bill would make the law retroactive.
A Senate committee will hold a hearing on the bill at noon Thursday and intends to vote on in the afternoon or evening.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said late Wednesday the bill should get through the House before the Legislature ends at midnight Thursday.
"The members of the House are going to understand the urgency of this and the need to clarify this," Lockhart said.
She said legislative leaders only found out about the loophole Tuesday.
"Frankly, we weren't aware of what the statute said. It was brought to our attention by the lieutenant governor. We all kind of went, 'Oh, wow. We need to fix this,'" she said.
The 18-page petition accuses Swallow of filing misleading or false campaign declaration and disclosure forms regarding his personal business interests; conducting campaign activities from his state office during and after business hours; and putting campaign funds to personal use.
Crystal Young-Otterstrom, president of the LDS Dems caucus, and Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Utah, along with two attorneys, delivered the document alleging a total of 12 violations to Lt. Gov. Greg Bell's office last Thursday.
Swallow campaign adviser Jason Powers said the complaint has no merit and is filled with shoddy research.
The lieutenant governor's office has not yet determined the validity of the allegations.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche