History was made Wednesday in a Salt Lake City courtroom — but not the good kind.
Two former Utah attorneys general appeared in criminal court to answer to a slew of public corruption charges, ranging from accepting or soliciting bribes to tampering with witnesses and evidence.
Mark Shurtleff and his protégé, John Swallow, face a combined 23 counts in what has mushroomed into the most sweeping political scandal in Utah history.
The courtroom, overflowing with more than 80 onlookers, dozens of lawyers and rows of media, quieted as the former top prosecutors shook hands.
They settled into the same bench at the front and exchanged pleasantries. It was the first time the two had seen each other since their arrest July 15, when officers escorted the men from their Sandy homes to the Salt Lake County Jail.
Swallow leaned back, his arm draped over the back of his seat as Shurtleff, on crutches after suffering complications resulting from a surgery earlier this month, maneuvered into place. Pinned to Shurtleff’s lapel was an American flag.
The former attorneys general were brought before Judge Royal Hansen as co-defendants — though Shurtleff said Wednesday he anticipates asking to sever his ties with Swallow as their cases progress.
Their next court appearance will be at 9 a.m. on Aug. 18 before Judge Elizabeth Hruby-Mills, the same jurist who is hearing the prosecution of Mark Sessions Jenson, a jailed businessman at the heart of some of the charges against Swallow and Shurtleff.
Jenson has accused the state’s two former top law enforcers of shaking him down for cash, favors and luxury treatment at the embattled businessman’s Southern California villa.
If the defendants or prosecutors take issue with Hruby-Mills’ appointment, a motion would be filed asking the court for a new judge.
Regardless of who hears the case, Swallow and Shurtleff said Wednesday they remain confident that they will beat the charges.
“The facts will show I’m innocent of all the things they said I’ve done,” Swallow said on his way out of the courtroom. “That’s all I’m going to say.”
Shurtleff, who paused before the hearing to take questions, told reporters the case has taken a toll on his loved ones.
“It’s hard on my family. It’s hard on me. We don’t sleep,” Shurtleff said. “[But] people believe in me and my 14 years of service; they believe in our family. They believe in justice. They’re anxious as we are that the truth be told, and it hasn’t been told yet, and now I get to tell the truth.”
Shurtleff — who served as Utah’s attorney general for a dozen years and two as a Salt Lake County commissioner — said he wants a “quick and speedy trial,” but expects the case to take about 18 months, with a trial lasting five to six weeks.
When asked whether a plea deal may be in the works, Shurtleff bristled.
“There’s no plea,” he said. “What would I plead to? When I say these are frivolous, false charges. I absolutely mean it.”
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and his office again came under fire Wednesday as Shurtleff’s attorney Rick Van Wagoner accused prosecutors of trying the men “in the court of public opinion.”
“He’s innocent — until proven otherwise,” Van Wagoner said of his client. “He maintains his innocence. And we are going to maintain our ethical obligation not to discuss trial strategy in public or comment on the evidence in public, contrary to what’s occurred with the district attorney’s office.”
Later, Gill said in an interview that the case will “take care of itself” as evidence is presented in court.
“I have been very careful to say mere allegations don’t mean someone is guilty of wrongdoing,” Gill said. “The issues here were out in the public long before [Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings] and I took on this case. Our intention has always been to move evidence forward through the criminal justice system.”
Hansen did not read aloud the long list of charges against the former attorneys general. He did order them to have zero contact with each other as their cases proceed — a standard requirement for co-defendants in a criminal case.
Shurtleff, who made Swallow his chosen successor, was charged with 10 felonies, including receiving or soliciting bribes, accepting gifts, tampering with witnesses and evidence and participating in a pattern of unlawful conduct.
Swallow, who was forced to step down in December less than a year into his first term, was charged with 11 felonies and two misdemeanors, including multiple counts of receiving or soliciting bribes, accepting gifts, tampering with evidence, obstructing justice and participating in a pattern of unlawful conduct.
The charges come after two years of investigative work by state and federal authorities, as well as separate inquiries by the Utah Legislature and the lieutenant governor’s office.
Both men were arrested July 15 and booked into the Salt Lake County jail. Bail was set at $250,000 each. They were released hours later. Neither had to post bond — an offer made by Gill as a show of good faith.
“They are first-time offenders,” Gill said then. “But they’re first-time offenders unlike any in the history of the state.”
Twitter: @Marissa_Jae, @RobertGehrke
Former Utah Attorneys General John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff made their initial 3rd District Court appearances Wednesday. The next hearing is set for Aug. 18. Here are the charges they face:
Charges against Swallow:
Count 1 • Pattern of unlawful activity, second-degree felony
Count 2 • Accepting a gift, second-degree felony
Counts 3-5 • Receiving or soliciting a bribe, second-degree felonies
Count 6 • False or inconsistent material statements, second-degree felony
Counts 7-9 • Tampering with evidence, third-degree felony
Count 10 • Misuse of public money, third-degree felony
Count 11 • Obstructing justice, third-degree felony
Count 12 • Falsification or alteration of government record, class B misdemeanor
Count 13 • Failure to disclose conflict of interest, class B misdemeanor
Charges against Shurtleff:
Count 1 • Pattern of unlawful activity, second-degree felony
Counts 2-4 • Receiving or soliciting a bribe, second-degree felonies
Counts 5-6 • Accepting a gift, second-degree felony
Count 7 • Accepting employment that would impair judgment, second-degree felony
Count 8 • Tampering with a witness, third-degree felony
Count 9 • Tampering with evidence, third-degree felony
Count 10 • Obstructing justice, third-degree felony