Legislative leaders are scrambling to address a conflict in state law that would require the Attorney General’s Office to investigate allegations of campaign violations against the attorney general.
In response to a complaint filed last week by the Alliance For A Better Utah, Lt. Gov. Greg Bell’s office said there is a need to change the law.
“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,” said elections director Mark Thomas. “We hope the Legislature will consider addressing the statutory language to resolve this conflict before the end of their General Session.”
The obvious conflict prompted the Legislature to leap into action on the eve of its final day of the session, with plans to waive traditional procedural rules about noticing meetings and take emergency action to fix the process.
Instead of sending the complaint to the attorney general, a bill that legislators plan to rush through Thursday would allow the lieutenant governor to appoint a special counsel to investigate. The measure, if approved, would be retroactive, so it would cover the current complaint against John Swallow.
“I think there’s a lot less conflict [giving the lieutenant governor the authority] than having the attorney general address the complaint,” said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser.
Niederhauser said the lieutenant governor has not yet determined the validity of the complaint, just that there is a conflict in the law that needed to be addressed.
“We have no indication from the lieutenant governor about where the complaint is in the process,” said House Speaker Becky Lockhart. “All we know is he approached us and mentioned this complication in the statute that we were unaware of.” She said it makes sense to address it now, while legislators are in session. The House members, she said, are largely supportive of the change.
Thomas, the elections director, confirmed that “We haven’t completed our review, thus no determination has been made.”
A hastily called hearing has been scheduled for Thursday afternoon to address the issue and leaders in the House and Senate hope to move the bill through both bodies before they adjourn Thursday by midnight.
Republicans in both the House and Senate were briefed on the issue in separate closed caucus meetings Wednesday evening.
The complaint by the Alliance For A Better Utah, filed last week, alleges a dozen violations of campaign disclosure laws, including multiple failures to report his business interests or income, and alleges he may have misused state resources and campaign funds.
If it is found that Swallow did violate state campaign law, the complaint notes, the remedy is to obtain a court order to have the elected official removed from the office he assumed in January.
The complaint includes an allegation that Swallow attempted to conceal his interest in P-Solutions and payments from Richard Rawle, the late founder of the payday lender Check City.
When Swallow filed to run for office on March 9, 2012, he did not list several companies in which he was an officer at the time. He filed an amended return on March 15, the same day he took his name off of several companies, transferring his interests to his wife.
That includes P-Solutions, a company that received $23,500 from Rawle for consulting work on a Nevada limestone quarry, part of a planned cement project.
The money Swallow was paid came from funds St. George business owner Jeremy Johnson paid to Rawle. Swallow had put Johnson in touch with Rawle, Swallow and Rawle insist, to hire lobbyists to help him avoid a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit. Johnson said he and Rawle arranged to pay Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., $600,000, which Johnson has called a bribe.
Reid has denied any knowledge of Johnson’s case.
Swallow’s conduct is the subject of a federal investigation and prompted calls for ethics reform in the Legislature. Democrats have also asked the governor to appoint a special investigator to determine if Swallow violated any state laws.