It is understandable that the $3.5 million — or more — Utah taxpayers have ponied up for the Legislature’s investigation of former Attorney General John Swallow feels like continuing to make payments on a car that’s already been junked.
After all, Swallow has resigned. And it was the findings of a parallel investigation by the office of the lieutenant governor, not the House special committee probe, that apparently pushed the attorney general to jump after nearly a year of being pushed.
But the feeling of nearly half of Utahns recently polled by The Tribune, that the House investigation wasn’t worth the money, can and should be overcome if the lawmakers who ordered and conducted the probe will use its results to improve the state’s horrifically lax campaign finance and conflict of interest laws.
For one thing, the Utah political climate practically begs for corrupt behavior due to the fact that it places no limits on campaign contributions. The resulting arms race among candidates — felt even by politician who, like Swallow, faced little in the way of credible opposition — creates a cash-and-carry, pay-to-play atmosphere that can cause candidates and donors to pull all kinds of stunts to evade the reporting requirements that the state does impose.
It was this cash poisoning of the political system that apparently moved Swallow to take extraordinary steps to hide his gifts from, and business connections with, shady characters that he was happy to receive money from but unwilling to be publicly associated with.
Utah needs campaign gift limits. It also needs tighter definitions of conflicts of interest and to require more timely and detailed reporting not only of overt campaign donations, but also of any and all business dealings candidates for office might have that could be seen as influencing their decision-making process. The lieutenant governor’s power to void elections won by candidates who won while violating those rules needs to be made constitutionally bulletproof.
Of course, Swallow wouldn’t have been facing a lieutenant governor’s push to void his election, or a possible impeachment vote by the House, if the things he was accused of weren’t already illegal. Just making them more illegal probably wouldn’t help anything.
What lawmakers need to carry away from the whole sorry affair is a public and permanent understanding that money is the lifeblood of politics, and its poison. If we no longer hear protests from lawmakers that money doesn’t influence them, this $3.5 million will have been well spent, indeed.