Still sporting the suit he was arrested in hours earlier, a defiant Mark Shurtleff stood before television crews and reporters Tuesday afternoon and accused Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill of leading a political witch hunt to help bolster his chances at re-election in the fall.
The former three-term Republican attorney general was arrested at his Sandy home early Tuesday on suspicion of 10 felonies that include receiving or soliciting bribes, witness tampering and participating in a pattern of unlawful conduct.
Although Shurtleff declined to comment specifically on the charges that landed him in the lockup for about three hours, he did not shy away from firing accusations at Gill, who, along with Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings, has led the criminal investigation against Shurtleff and his anointed successor, John Swallow.
Neither did Swallow’s defense team, accusing Gill of displaying “partisan politics at its worst.”
Shurtleff expressed outrage that Gill, a Democrat, declined his offer to meet with investigators well before his early-morning arrest.
“I have been deprived of that opportunity by Mr. Gill, which should tell anyone that rather than care about a full understanding of the facts, he prefers to charge ahead with incomplete information, also suggesting a pretext or political motive, all coming to fruition in an election year in which he is running for a second term,” Shurtleff said from his lawyer’s office in downtown Salt Lake City.
Shurtleff said the FBI and the Utah Department of Public Safety were complicit in what he labeled “political sideshow antics.”
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Gill, who did not watch the widely broadcast news conference, said he and his team of about a dozen investigators treated the two former officeholders as they would any other suspects in a criminal probe.
“Let’s put this in a proper context: We have two former attorneys general who are accused of abusing their power. That’s a very serious allegation — it goes right to public trust and expectations,” Gill said. “So, if I treat this person any differently, the public would see that as a continuity of the alleged abuse and mistrust. We have to balance doing our job with being courteous and respectful. That’s what we did here.”
Shurtleff argued that “any capable prosecutor who is interested in doing justice” would have wanted to meet with the subject of a criminal probe and he also noted that he assisted FBI agents on portions of the case involving Tim Lawson and Jeremy Johnson, two men who also face criminal charges.
The former attorney general dismissed Gill as “an administrator and figurehead,” and challenged him to serve as the lead prosecutor at the trial.
“I had hoped that Mr. Gill would do the right thing, like the U.S. Department of Justice did, and not abuse his power and position of district attorney to bring charges he knows he cannot possibly prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Shurtleff said, referring to a federal investigation that was abandoned in September without any charges being filed against Utah’s former top cops. “But, then again, he obviously delayed today’s charges long enough, for two years, in order to ensure that I cannot establish my innocence and obtain justice until after this November’s election.”
Shurtleff defended his 12 years as attorney general, while at the same time conceding he made “errors in judgment.”
“But I have never intentionally committed any violation of the ethics, codes of ethics,” he said. “I have never misused or abused the public trust, and I have certainly not violated any of the criminal laws of the state.”
Although there have been multiple probes into the conduct of Shurtleff and Swallow, Gill said he and Rawlings did not get to the crux of their investigation until early this year — after a bipartisan House committee released a damning report in early March that accused Swallow of hanging a veritable “For Sale” sign on the door of the Utah attorney general’s office.
Gill, who would not respond to Shurtleff’s challenge, pointed to the House report as one of several widespread inquiries that have implicated Swallow and Shurtleff in wrongdoing — all of which preceded Shurtleff’s arrest.
“These are things that were investigated by multiple people, by the FBI, the U.S. attorney’s office, the Department of Justice, the Utah House of Representatives, the lieutenant governor’s office and by us. So, either all of those people are politically motivated and conspiring together in some grand conspiracy, or it’s a very complex and nuanced case that everyone’s working through,” Gill said in an interview. “Everyone’s just trying to get to the truth of what really happened here.”
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In an earlier news conference Tuesday, Gill criticized the Justice Department for dropping the ball in its investigation of Swallow and Shurtleff.
Rawlings, a Republican who was largely dismissed by Shurtleff at his news conference, said Shurtleff and Swallow are, and will continue to be treated as, innocent until proven guilty — as is their constitutional right.
“I understand Mr. Shurtleff is upset with me right now — that’s not surprising, given the circumstances,” Gill said. “But this is the result of many months of investigations by several agencies, including the FBI and the [Utah] Department of Public Safety. I don’t control those folks.”
In an interview, Swallow’s attorney, Stephen McCaughey, echoed Shurtleff’s accusations against Gill and the investigation.
“There’s some serious political motivation behind it,” McCaughey said, “but where that’s going to get us, in the long run, I’m not sure.”
When asked about Rawlings and his part in the probe, McCaughey pointed to Tuesday morning’s news conference.
“Did you hear anything from Troy [Rawlings?]” he asked. “I didn’t. And I don’t know what’s going on there, but Sim [Gill] was the only one talking.”
Later, Swallow’s defense team, issued a news release lobbing even stronger language at Gill.
“Time and again, Sim Gill has used this case as a political platform, and today’s arrest is but one more unfortunate example. In a carefully crafted and politically calculated ploy, Sim Gill brought charges that smack of political opportunism more than any loyalty to our country’s longstanding commitment to due process,” the emailed statement said. “ ... The decision to charge Swallow comes long after the [Justice Department’s] Public Integrity Section declined to pursue charges, but only shortly before Gill’s next re-election fight.”
State Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, who led the House investigation, disputed Shurtleff’s accusations of a political motivation. He found Gill and Rawlings to be “methodical.”
“I don’t see any basis for that accusation,” Dunnigan said. “To me, this is not a witch hunt at all.”
Twitter: @mattcanham, @marissa_jae