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Paul Rolly: D.A. closes House forgery probe as whodunit hits dead end

Published November 11, 2013 5:07 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

While the special counsel to a House committee investigating Attorney General John Swallow is zeroing in on missing electronic records from the attorney general's office, another probe targeting the House and its own electronic data has shut down.

It's not because allegations could not be proved that a forgery occurred on a House member's computer in 2010. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has closed the criminal inquiry because it is impossible to pinpoint who forged Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham's electronic signature using that computer.

The irony between the two investigations is hard to miss.

Special counsel Steven Reich said last week he was troubled by the scope of missing emails and other electronic communications as the bipartisan House panel investigates Swallow in a fact-finding probe that could lay the groundwork for impeachment proceedings.

A computer in the House was used in 2010 to forge Durham's e-signature on a petition to get a proposed ethics law on the ballot at the same time the Supreme Court was considering issues pertaining to that initiative.

The high court eventually ruled the petitioners could not extend their efforts past a deadline imposed by the Legislature, whose members overwhelmingly opposed the ethics proposal. It also eventually declared that e-signatures were acceptable for petitions.

Before those decisions, while the court was still weighing those issues, the Utah Attorney General's Office informed petition organizers in 2012 that Durham's name had appeared as a signer, so she would have to recuse herself from the case. But when Durham signed an affidavit swearing she never signed the petition, the focus turned to an alleged forgery.

Why would someone forge Durham's name using a computer? Perhaps to focus attention on the justice, who, based on her previous court opinions, was seen as a likely sympathetic vote for the petitioners. Also, by forging her name, it supposedly could be shown that e-signatures should not be allowed because of the fraud potential.

The Salt Lake County district attorney's office and the FBI traced the e-signature to a computer at the House, then identified the lawmaker assigned to that computer. It was a Republican who no longer is in the Legislature.

He told investigators he never typed in Durham's name on the petition. He said he had left his computer on, so others could have accessed it and that others also knew his log-on password.

Gill said the former legislator's denial seemed plausible because the exact time Durham's name appeared on the website was recorded. At that time, during the legislative session, the lawmaker in question could be seen on videotapes walking around on the House floor. The computer was in a back office.

While the signature had later been erased from that computer, tech experts were able to retrieve it. Gill said because of the number of people who could have typed in Durham's name, no individual could be tagged so the investigation has been closed.

prolly@sltrib.com