After months of work, investigators hired by the Utah House to get to the bottom of the John Swallow scandal found evidence destruction and fabrication, a pay-to-play culture, an elaborate network created to hide campaign donors and likely violations of election laws.
But Utahns appear to choke on the probe’s price tag — now projected to top $3.5 million — according to a new poll for The Salt Lake Tribune.
“As far as I’m concerned about doing an investigation, it’s just a waste of taxpayer money,” said Salt Lake City resident Jim Forsgren, who participated in the survey. “I don’t know why the taxpayers have to back up everything that happens politically.”
Forsgren is not alone in his sentiment. Nearly half the Utahns in the poll (48 percent) say the Swallow investigation was not worth the expense. More than a third (35 percent) say it was.
While there was some discussion last month about whether the House investigation should continue — despite Swallow’s resignation, Utahns overwhelmingly oppose the idea by better than a 2-to-1 margin.
By a comparable 34-point margin, Utahns dislike a proposal to change the method for choosing Utah’s attorney general, from the current elected post to a one appointed by the governor.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, chairman of the House Special Investigative Committee, said he feels stronger now that the investigation was important than he did when lawmakers created the bipartisan panel last summer.
“I wish it didn’t cost what it cost, but it was a very involved investigation with a lot of tentacles, some misdirection, and I think it was worthwhile and important that we do it,” Dunnigan said. “I would just invite people, if they haven’t listened, to listen to a little more of our presentation [of the findings] and everybody will have to make their own decisions.”
Poll respondent Gordon McGavin, of Holladay, said the accusations warranted an investigation and that Swallow was right to step down.
“If there are allegations of wrongdoing, they should be investigated and appropriate action taken,” McGavin said. “There were too many clouds over his head and he was spending all his time worrying about that. He couldn’t perform his functions properly. It probably would’ve been better if he’d [resigned] sooner.”
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, a member of the investigative committee, said lawmakers had an obligation to get to the bottom of the scandal engulfing the Republican attorney general.
“It was necessarily spent to restore the citizens of Utah’s faith in the fact that, if there’s a problem in government, we’re going to fix it,” Dee said. “I think, in this particular case, the record has shown that there was indeed a problem and we have indeed addressed that.”
Another committee member, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, said the public’s opinion might be different if Swallow were still in office. When the panel was established, she said, Utahns’ desire was clear.
“We were responding,” she said, “to what we were hearing our constituents say at the time, which is: Get to the truth of the matter.”
Chavez-Houck hopes the investigative work shed light on “challenges” in the state’s campaign-finance laws and that legislation will result to solve those issues.
The Tribune poll found that, by a large margin — 59 percent to 27 percent — Utahns oppose the House investigation continuing now that Swallow has left office, and Dunnigan said he doesn’t expect much more to be done.
He said the investigators and attorneys hired by the committee are putting together their report, and there might be some additional work done to tie up loose ends. That report may not be released to the public until the end of February.
Dunnigan has said the probe’s cost wouldn’t have been as steep if the committee hadn’t been forced to spend money trying to recover Swallow’s deleted electronic records and litigating over numerous subpoenas. He has said those two factors tacked on more than $1 million to the price tag.
The Tribune’s survey was part of an automated poll of 600 Utahns conducted by SurveyUSA from Jan. 10-13. The sample included home and cellular phones with margins of error for these questions ranging from 4 percentage points to 4.1 percentage points.
Democrats in the survey believe the investigation was worthwhile by a margin of 45 percent to 39 percent, while Republicans say it wasn’t by a spread of 58 percent to 31 percent. Independents broke against the probe’s price, as well, 44 percent to 35 percent. These subsets, it should be noted, have much larger margins of error.
One proposed change in the aftermath of the Swallow saga is a proposed amendment to the Utah Constitution to alter how attorneys general are chosen.
Rather than having voters elect the state’s top attorney, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, wants a panel of legal experts to vet candidates for the job and then send five names to the governor, who would pick one. That appointee would be subject to Senate confirmation, serve for six years, and be ineligible for reappointment.
The idea, Weiler said, is to insulate the position from fundraising and campaign pressures.
“Unlike the governor and the Legislature, the attorney general gets to decide who gets prosecuted and who gets a pass,” Weiler said. “It’s a special power. And when you commingle that power with fundraising, it can yield some pretty unhealthy results, which is what we’ve seen unfold over the past year.”
Even so, 55 percent of Utahns are against such a change, while 21 percent support it.
Weiler said he recognizes he has his work cut out for him, getting two-thirds support from the Legislature during the upcoming session. But he said he believes the next few months under Attorney General Sean Reyes will help his case.
“We have an appointed attorney general right now,” Weiler said, “and I think people are going to see it’s working just fine.”