The Democratic candidate for Utah attorney general — who until this week worked in the office — said Attorney General Sean Reyes has done almost nothing to deal with the aftermath of the scandal that engulfed his predecessors John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff and outlined several new reforms to stave off future corruption.
Chief among the reforms that candidate Charles Stormont said he would put in place is the creation of an ethics team within the attorney general’s office to advise employees at all levels of government of their obligations and to investigate and potentially prosecute complaints of wrongdoing.
“This is significant, because we even heard from Sean that a lot of employees in the AG’s office saw what was going on [under Swallow and Shurtleff] but had nowhere to turn,” Stormont said. “I want to create a place where not only people in the AG’s office, but across the state have a place to turn if they have a concern about governance.”
Stormont has taken a leave of absence to challenge his boss, as legally required, and is formally launching his campaign Wednesday in an event where he’ll seek to differentiate himself from Reyes. The Democratic challenger sat down with The Salt Lake Tribune this week when he argued the attorney general already has the legal authority he needs to establish an ethics office, and believes it could be funded by reducing the size of the top executive staff, which has grown under Reyes’ tenure.
Most major corporations across the world have a similar ethics office, Stormont said, “and it’s desperately needed in Utah government.”
Reyes has not returned a request to comment.
The Legislature, amid the scandal that ultimately forced Swallow to resign from office, created an ethics committee to investigate complaints, but it only covers elected officials — the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, auditor and treasurer.
Reyes took over promising changes and to restore trust in the office, Stormont said, but after six months in the top job, there have been very few results.
“There’s a lot of concern, because it does not appear that the current administration has learned the most important lessons of the Swallow and Shurtleff debacle,” Stormont said. “I would say that office morale is lower than I’ve ever seen it. There was a desire for leadership that hasn’t occurred.”
Stormont said that, since he announced he was running, many colleagues have approached him with concerns over salaries and bonuses and budgeting issues. He said Reyes has staffed the office with friends from his previous law firm.
“The politics of cronyism have no place in the AG’s office. Those lessons appear to have been glossed over,” Stormont said in an interview.
Reyes’ chief criminal deputy, Spencer Austin, came from Reyes’ previous firm and as a prosecutor 23 years ago was sanctioned by the Utah Supreme Court for withholding evidence in a case from the defense.
“Quite frankly, although that was many years ago, I’m not sure that’s something you ever recover from as a prosecutor,” Stormont said.
Stormont said he would have open hiring for the top jobs to make sure the best qualified people fill the positions.
He also said he would rescind a media policy issued under Reyes that threatens attorneys and staff who talk to the media with termination.
“We have seen a press policy that is incredibly oppressive and creates a really troubling environment, especially in light of what we’ve seen,” Stormont said.
Stormont also said that decisions under his leadership would be driven by the law and not political calculations. He pointed to the state’s ongoing appeals of a ruling striking down its ban on same-sex marriage as an example where he feels the law is not being followed.
“I think it’s entirely improper for an attorney general” to make political decisions, Stormont said. “The attorney general should be entirely focused on the law. … I see the law as very clear that marriage is a fundamental right and he continues to talk about the policy of litigating this case.”
Numerous state and federal judges across the country have struck down marriage bans similar to Utah’s.
Stormont also said he would not take any campaign contributions from payday lenders, telemarketers, coaching and so-called “BizOps” firms, or alarm security companies, which were primary sources of funds for Shurtleff and Swallow.
“These are companies that receive the most consumer complaints in Utah and they should be scrutinized by the attorney general’s office,” Stormont said.