On paper, Brent Ward stacks up well among the candidates seeking to replace Utah Attorney General John Swallow, with a long record as a prosecutor including eight years as U.S. attorney for Utah.
But Ward’s pivotal role in Jeremy Johnson’s I Works saga that contributed to Swallow’s resignation — including a bold, but failed, plea deal that could have given Swallow immunity from federal charges — has some questioning if he’s the best choice to change the culture in the beleaguered attorney general’s office.
“This is a joke, right?” state Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, himself an attorney, wrote on Facebook of Ward’s candidacy.
If Gov. Gary Herbert appoints Ward to fill the post, Urquhart said in an interview he would demand an investigation into the Swallow immunity deal that Ward — then the lead federal prosecutor in Johnson’s criminal case — appears to have cut, suggesting that Ward has “a vested interest in protecting the same machine that empowers John Swallow.”
“The fact that Brent Ward was willing to grant John Swallow blanket immunity without an investigation stinks to high heaven,” Urquhart said. “It stinks of the same odor that has been coming out of the attorney general’s office for years.”
Indeed, Ward’s actions — and his relationship with Swallow and his predecessor, former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff — are drawing the attention of state and federal investigators along with a pair of county prosecutors who are continuing their sweeping probe into alleged misconduct by Swallow and Shurtleff.
Last month, Utah Department of Public Safety investigator Scott Nesbitt asked the attorney general’s office to provide any correspondence between Ward and Swallow or Shurtleff.
But Ward, one of a handful of Republicans who have filed to take over as attorney general, insists any suggestion he’s cozy with Swallow is false.
“I’m not a friend of John Swallow. I never have been,” Ward said Monday. “I’ve spoken with John Swallow once in my entire life.”
That meeting came when Swallow was considering his bid for attorney general and heard Ward was doing the same. By the time they met, Ward said he had decided against running and Swallow asked for Ward’s support. Ward said he gave Swallow permission to use his name, provided it not be linked to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Ward noted the I Works case has become a high-profile matter and, once he filed for the attorney general job, decided he should remove himself from the prosecution. He filed a motion with the judge Monday to withdraw from the case.
“That will enable me to concentrate on the messages of my campaign,” he said. “There are other prosecutors in the case and the case will remain in good hands.”
Ward said he didn’t know state investigators were interested in any ties with Swallow, but added they won’t find any.
“I’m not concerned about it,” he said, “because there’s nothing to be concerned about.”
Johnson’s legal troubles began in early 2010 when he and his I Works company drew scrutiny from federal regulators.
That case touched Swallow after Johnson revealed that Swallow, when working as Shurtleff’s chief deputy attorney general, had put him in touch with the late payday-loan entrepreneur Richard Rawle for help in scuttling any federal investigation.
I Works and one of Johnson’s business associates paid about $250,000 for the effort, but federal regulators sued in late 2010, and Johnson sought at least part of the money back. That led to phone calls and meetings between Johnson and Swallow — including an April 2012 exchange at an Orem Krispy Kreme — during which Johnson increasingly demanded return of the money.
In June 2011, the feds filed a federal mail fraud charge against Johnson, a case in which Ward became chief prosecutor. Johnson has pointed out in blogs and videos that the lead investigator admitted in court that no probe was done before the arrest independent of accusations in the civil lawsuit.
Johnson, who is now under a gag order in his criminal case, later accused Ward of bullying witnesses and trying to railroad him into a plea deal by threatening to arrest his family, friends and business associates. As part of the negotiations, Ward had agreed not to bust others related to I Works, but Johnson insisted Swallow’s name be included on the immunity list because Johnson believed Swallow was being investigated by the FBI in relation to the Rawle deal and did not want him criminally prosecuted.
Nathan Crane, Johnson’s attorney at that time, sent his client’s list of people he wanted to protect — including Swallow — to Ward, according to an email exchange in October 2012. Ward replied that the list couldn’t be included as part of the written plea agreement but assured Johnson that a blanket no-prosecution clause covered others who were possibly involved.
Then, in a dramatic scene during the January court hearing to approve the plea deal, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer asked Johnson if other promises were made to him outside of the written agreement.
Johnson dug out a PowerPoint slide of individuals Ward had agreed would not be arrested. That list was placed in the court record.
Nuffer asked again if there were any more promises. Johnson then produced a second list, which included Swallow, and the following exchange ensued between the judge and Ward:
Nuffer: And you’re familiar with this [second] list, Mr. Ward?
Ward: Yes, I am.
Nuffer: OK. Can we mark this as an exhibit?
Ward: Yes, your honor.
Carlos Esqueda, who at the time was over the public-corruption unit of the U.S. attorney’s office, then jumped out of his seat and looked over the list.
Outside the courtroom, U.S. Attorney David Barlow denied any threats had been made. Two days later, he issued a statement saying federal prosecutors had not agreed to provide Swallow with immunity.
Ward said Monday the gag order also prevents him from discussing any of the circumstances surrounding the Johnson plea.
Serving as U.S. attorney for Utah from 1981 to 1989, Ward made his reputation by battling pornography. He took down “dial-a-porn” phone sex businesses and hit the owner of Utah’s last two X-rated theaters with tax charges, essentially driving them from business.
After leaving the U.S. attorney’s office, he became a senior executive at Huntsman Corp. He ran for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate in 1992, but lost to Bob Bennett. He co-founded a business to make “hyper-computers,” but it fizzled, and he returned to a government job in 2005, leading a Justice Department task force aimed at stamping out adult smut.
Now Ward wants to clean up the state’s top law office.
“We’ve got a serious problem in the attorney general’s office, as everyone knows, with respect to conflicts of interest and campaign finance regulations and violations.”
Some — including state Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, and Utah Democratic Party boss Jim Dabakis — have suggested whoever is appointed to replace Swallow should serve only for a year as a caretaker until an attorney general is elected in November 2014 and sworn in come January 2015.
But Ward said that “doesn’t solve the endemic and ongoing problem of the insidious influence of money in politics.”
Ward said that, if he were appointed to take over as attorney general, he would run to keep the post in 2014, but added he would not campaign until a month before the election — even if that meant losing a Republican primary. He said he wouldn’t accept any contribution above the $2,600 federal limit and would reject any donation from an entity that has or might reasonably have business with the attorney general’s office.
He said he would return money from contributors who later have business with the office and would create a website to post campaign donors within 24 hours of a contribution.
The Republican State Central Committee is scheduled to meet Dec. 14 to whittle the field of contenders to replace Swallow to three names. Those names will be sent to Herbert, who will choose one to fill the job.
Swallow says goodbye, apologizes to staff
After nearly eleven rocky months, John Swallow ended his tenure as Utah’s attorney general Monday, bidding the office farewell and apologizing for any turmoil he caused.
“I have long hoped I would be able to finish my full term and accomplish much more together, but I am grateful for the good we have done — very grateful,” Swallow wrote in an email to staff. “I feel badly and apologize that my time has ended so swiftly and with any degree of controversy.”
Swallow thanked the workers for their professionalism during difficult times and said serving “has been the honor of my life.”
The Republican’s tenure as attorney general was scheduled to officially end Tuesday at 12:01 a.m., less than a year into a four-year term marred from its first week by scandal, allegations of misconduct and multiple investigations.
Swallow has maintained his innocence throughout and had vowed to fight to the end — until Nov. 21, when he announced his plans to resign, citing the financial and personal toll the investigations were taking on him and his family.
The next day, the lieutenant governor’s office issued a report that said Swallow committed multiple violations of state election laws by concealing income he received and interests in several businesses.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox announced last week that — because of Swallow’s departure — he would not go to court to seek to have Swallow’s election voided — the only remedy available to his office.
By staying in office until Dec. 2, Swallow qualified for a state pension of about $12,000 a year once he reaches age 65 — a benefit he would have forfeited had he left a few days earlier.
Swallow remains the focus of a criminal investigation led by top prosecutors in Salt Lake and Davis counties.
A special Utah House committee, which could have laid the groundwork for impeachment, is scheduled to meet Saturday to begin winding down its probe of Swallow. It could be several weeks before the bipartisan panel issues its findings.