New website defends Swallow, but few others doing the same
Politics • Utah’s key Republicans taking ‘wait-and-see’ approach.
Published: February 9, 2013 11:57AM
Updated: May 21, 2013 11:32PM
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Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune John Swallow, Chief Deputy Utah Attorney General, and newly elected Utah Attorney General, in the attorney general's offices at the Utah State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City, on Dec. 3, 2012. Swallow intends to follow Mark Shurtleff's policies toward polygamy. Sexual abuse and fraud will be prosecuted, but not bigamy itself.

For nearly a month, Utah Attorney General John Swallow has been largely on his own, defending himself from allegations of ethical and potential legal impropriety without prominent Republicans or elected officials by his side.

On Friday, a website — utahag.com — was launched to tell Swallow’s version of events and encourage Utahns to take a deep breath and not rush to judge the embattled attorney general while federal agencies investigate him.

“I don’t know that anybody knows enough information to make sweeping judgment calls, to know if John Swallow has done something ethical or unethical or … done anything criminal,” said Jeremy Roberts, who is paying for the site through his ONE PAC political-action committee. “I think the best thing for John now is due process, and the public ought to afford him that like they would anybody else.”

The site makes the case that Swallow did nothing wrong in meeting with I Works owner Jeremy Johnson while the latter was under investigation and later indicted. It says it was OK for Swallow to refer Johnson to his friend Richard Rawle to help intervene in a Federal Trade Commission probe. It also contends that Swallow was cleared of violating office policy and that he did nothing that warrants him losing his law license.

So far, the website offers one of the few voices speaking up and defending Swallow against Johnson’s allegations that Swallow, while working as Utah’s chief deputy attorney general, helped arrange payments to enlist Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to weigh in on Johnson’s FTC case.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has confirmed that it is investigating Swallow’s conduct.

Quin Monson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, said that, so far, the best Swallow has been able to get from his GOP counterparts is a “wait and see,” and that’s not a rousing defense.

“There’s a lot of risk to defending him, because at best it doesn’t look like it was completely ethical [conduct] for a guy who is supposed to be the chief law enforcement officer,” Monson said. “Why would anyone risk their reputation defending him?”

On Wednesday night, the Utah Republican Party’s executive committee met and briefly discussed the Swallow saga. Again, there were no defenders.

GOP Chairman Thomas Wright has said that, “at a minimum,” Swallow made mistakes in his judgment and called for a regimen of ethics reforms aimed at avoiding future problems.

Wright said Wednesday he wanted to be proactive about the party’s response, and Republican National Committeewoman Enid Mickelsen praised him for doing so.

“We always have to stand up for the principle first,” she said. “We hope we can support our elected officials because they stood for principle, too. But there are times when there is a conflict, and, in those times, we have to stand up for principle and not the elected official.”

Most Republican leaders, from Gov. Gary Herbert to Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, are reserving judgment. House Speaker Becky Lockhart said that reaction makes sense.

“People are concerned about the [reports] and potential impacts the situation has on the party, but we are a party that believes in due process and innocence until proven guilty,” she said. “So what you’re seeing is a waiting pattern, a disappointment that the party is seen in a negative light, but also a commitment to be fair.”

Around the Utah Capitol, through social media and elsewhere, Republican loyalists have suggested it is time for Swallow to resign and spare his party. Senators last month received a briefing on how impeachment would work, should further revelations prompt the House to launch the process for removing him from office.

Nearly 60 percent of Utahns who followed Swallow’s case believe he acted illegally or unethically, according to a poll last month by Key Research and BYU. Nearly half of those who said Swallow acted inappropriately said he should resign.

Among Republicans, 53 percent said Swallow acted unethically or illegally and, of those, they were split evenly on whether he should step down.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke