The arrests of former attorneys general John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff have fostered some deep introspection among Utah political leaders. Among the questions:
Do these arrests reflect deeper ethical decay in Utah’s political system, a culture of corruption that exists below the surface?
Pignanelli: “There is an interesting interplay between power corrupting and corruption empowering. The causality does not go one way.” — Bruce de Mesquita
Utah is a national center for flim-flam artists but with a unique twist. A former supervisor of the FBI white-collar/public corruption crime squad confirmed to a local newspaper that on a per capita basis, Utah has more volume and losses from fraudulent schemes. Oftentimes the shysters abuse relationships within their religious congregation. But the special agent also pointed out that dealing with Utah crooks "is a pleasant experience because they are so friendly and nice with magnetic personalities." Although this G-man spent time in this seamy underbelly of the Beehive State, he is forsaking a potential promotion in another field office in order to build a home and raise his family here. Without doubt, Utah is the greatest place on earth. Even our white-collar criminals are so agreeable that their pursuers want to live among them.
For unexplained reasons, this culture that fosters Ponzi and pyramid schemes also promotes honor and integrity in local government. With rare exceptions, Utah officials are honest and dedicated public servants who abide by a higher standard. Swallow and Shurtleff are such novelties that the Legislature had to scramble just to invent rules for a constitutional impeachment process never utilized before.
Readers should not worry about the ethics of their local council member or legislator. But about that neighbor promising to double your investment in six months .
Webb: What this sad saga means is two guys holding high office could not resist the charms and lifestyles of shady wealthy people wanting favors. It only goes that deep. No culture of corruption exists. The political system and the justice system worked just as they should in bringing the case to its current status. Leaders in both political parties at all levels and branches of government worked collaboratively. No cover-up or partisan in-fighting occurred. Utah forthrightly cleans up its messes.
Certainly, people with lots of money and people with political power are attracted to each other. But ethical political leaders have an instinct, a sixth sense, that tells them to keep shady people at arms length and not to accept their money and favors. I’ve seen good political leaders turn down money and avoid people who were angling for special treatment. Thankfully, that is more the norm in Utah than any culture of corruption.
Much of this scandal has its origins in campaign contributions and relationships with large donors. Should campaign finance laws in Utah be tightened?
Pignanelli: The perception is campaign contributions are at the root of this controversy. Yet most of the charges against the former attorneys general are based on legal and ethical breaches outside of election donations. The alleged malfeasant actions committed by Shurtleff and Swallow in their appointed and elected offices would not have been prevented by stricter campaign finance laws.
Webb: I’m not opposed to reasonable campaign contribution limits and other reforms. But don’t expect such laws to prevent corruption. Despite tough laws against robbing banks, crooks still rob banks. Should we strengthen bank robbery laws? Whenever a politician gets in trouble, do-gooders demand that laws be strengthened. Looks to me like Utah’s existing laws worked pretty well.
Part of the mission of the Utah House investigation was to determine if additional laws are needed. But making things harder for all the honest people in politics won’t prevent bad people from doing bad things. The federal government and many states have tried to impose tough campaign finance and election laws. But through court decisions and by using creative legal entities, those wishing to influence politics have found ways to spend all the money they can raise. Money finds its way into politics. That’s a reality. Electing honest people is the best way to avoid political corruption.
Will this scandal benefit Democrats in the upcoming election, especially District Attorney Sim Gill?
Pignanelli: As noted in prior columns, the correct perception by Utahns is that the Legislature dealt with the A.G. mess in an effective and bipartisan manner. This eliminates any advantages in the election. However, there are grumbles percolating in the legal community that Gill stalled investigations so charges were filed in the mid-election season to gain an enormous PR benefit. Regardless of its veracity, politicos are monitoring if and how Republicans deliver this charge against the D.A.
Webb: Gill certainly has a flair for the flamboyant and a taste for cameras and attention. But with a number of Republicans collaborating in the investigation, he has plenty of cover and it’s hard to charge him with political grandstanding. Even with Gill’s high profile, I doubt he’s much of a threat to Republicans in, say, a statewide attorney general race.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail:[email protected]. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. E-mail:[email protected].