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Rolly: Utah's sorry run of AGs

Published January 19, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff enjoyed an all-expense-paid trip to the Bahamas in 2007 to be the keynote speaker at a convention for the payday lender industry's Community Financial Services Association of America.

Shurtleff's speech was titled: "Is Greed Good?"

Based on recent reports that various companies under the scrutiny of state and federal regulators gave Shurtleff hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions over the years, and complaints in the past that he was reluctant to prosecute his campaign donors, it appears he has answered his own question.

Now, Shurtleff's hand-picked successor, newly elected AG John Swallow, is facing serious allegations questioning his ethics.

Businessman and Shurtleff contributor Jeremy Johnson, facing federal fraud charges, has alleged that Swallow offered to set up a bribe scheme to make the investigation of Johnson go away. Swallow has denied Johnson's allegations.

The latest dust-up has piqued renewed interest in changing the way attorneys general are selected. Now they are voted in by the people. That would be dropped and replaced with having the AG appointed by either the Utah Supreme Court, the Legislature or the governor.

Critics of the current system say Utah's allowance of unlimited campaign contributions creates a culture of corruption in which the person elected to prosecute white-collar crimes is receiving tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars from those being investigated for white-collar crime.

Currently, seven states have appointed attorneys general.

The criticism of Utah's elected attorneys general dates to the 1960s with flamboyant Democratic Attorney General Phil Hansen, who raised eyebrows when he ordered a Jaguar for his state car. He justified the extravagance, claiming that because Jaguars have such good resale value, he was saving the state money.

Hansen was sued several times during his four years in office for failure to pay his bills and got in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service.

He was followed in office by Republican Vernon Romney, whose intelligence was publicly questioned by then-Gov. Calvin Rampton.

Romney was followed by Republican Bob Hansen, who was publicly reprimanded twice by the Utah State Bar. He was accused of witness tampering in a case where his secretary's daughter was accused of shoplifting. And he was widely criticized for conducting background checks on jurors during an obscenity trial, asking jurors' neighbors and church leaders about their character.

Hansen was succeeded by Republican David Wilkinson, who spent about $1 million of taxpayers' money defending the constitutionality of Utah's ill-fated law regulating cable television programing. Wilkinson was criticized by legislators in his own party for spending much of his staff's time on trivial matters.

Wilkinson was defeated by Democrat Paul Van Dam, who insisted, over the objection of legislators, on hiring the law firm of Jones, Waldo, Holbrook and McDonough to defend Utah's abortion bill. He still paid the firm after it had to resign due to a conflict of interest. Then it came out that, at the time of the hire, the firm had purchased for several thousand dollars a number of Van Dam's wife's paintings.

Wilkinson also created a new position in his office for a former sheriff's deputy, who was president of the Utah Public Employees Association when the organization gave Wilkinson an unprecedented $37,000 campaign contribution.

Van Dam's successor, Democrat Jan Graham, had a tumultuous relationship with Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt that led to the Legislature stripping away some of her duties and giving them to the governor's personal attorney. That action was so unpopular that the Legislature repealed the law the following year.

Graham had been praised by members of both parties for being the best of that crop of attorneys general.

That prompted Bud Scruggs, chief of staff to former Gov. Norm Bangerter, to quip: "That's like being the tallest building in Tooele." —