Rolly: Names emerge as possible Swallow successors

By paul rolly

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: November 27, 2013 10:53AM
Updated: November 27, 2013 07:29AM
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Paul Rolly

The day that Utah Attorney General John Swallow announced his resignation, an email made the rounds among prosecutors throughout the state that Scott Burns, twice a candidate for the office, was moving back to Utah.

That created an excitement among prosecutors and others associated with the attorney general’s office that Burns — a former Iron County prosecutor, deputy drug czar in the George W. Bush administration and, more recently, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association — might be available for the job.

The buzz centers around the desire to have an experienced prosecutor head the state’s top legal office.

Burns told me he was interested in the job and has received some encouraging support from fellow prosecutors in Utah.

His challenge is that he has lived away from Utah, in Washington, D.C., for 12 years and isn’t widely known within the Republican State Central Committee, which plans to meet in December to pick three names to be sent to Gov. Gary Herbert, who then would make the appointment.

Nonetheless, with the attorney general’s office fighting the stench of scandal, Burns’ experience is seen as an asset.

When he took over the National District Attorneys Association, that organization was wounded by investigations of embezzlement and other alleged misdeeds.

Burns said he has cleaned up that mess and is ready to come home.

He was the Republican candidate for attorney general in 1992 and 1996, losing both times to Democrat Jan Graham.

Former justice jumps in • Another intriguing candidate who confirmed he is throwing his name out for consideration: former Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael J. Wilkins.

Wilkins, who served for 10 years on the state’s highest court, said he would not seek re-election next year as attorney general and would strive only to get the office back on track and repair its reputation.

That appeals to some in the legal community so the attorney general can focus on the job without having to raise campaign money and gear up for an election.

Wilkins, who knows many of the attorneys in the A.G.’s office because of his years on the bench, said he wants to restore confidence in the professional integrity of the attorney general.

Not facing the pressure of a campaign, he argues, would make it easier to accomplish those goals.

Office politics • Now that Swallow is leaving, some in the office are talking about the atmosphere there for the past year and during the final term of then-Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

There was an “us-against-them” mentality among the top managers and a cloud of suspicion toward those not considered loyalists to Shurtleff and his handpicked successor, Swallow.

If lawyers or staff questioned some of the activities of the attorney general, they were cut off from the inner circle and from policy discussions. If anyone was suspected of talking to investigators, I was told, they were labeled as malcontents and shunned.

Some fear their careers have been tainted to such a degree they won’t be able to recover, which makes the next year of leadership before the 2014 election even more important to the staff itself.

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Who’s on first? • In Monday’s column, I congratulated my newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, for its dogged coverage of the attorney general’s office and for being the first newspaper to call for Swallow to step down.

Randy Wright, former editor of Provo’s Daily Herald, notes that the Herald beat The Tribune in calling for Swallow’s resignation.

prolly@sltrib.com