Swallow resigns, proclaiming innocence: 'Time for the madness to stop.'
By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Nov 21 2013 11:02AM
The state’s top attorney made his closing arguments Thursday, passionately defending his innocence even as he announced his departure from the office he took nearly 11 months ago.
Attorney General John Swallow was defiant as he stood before reporters, taking swipes at what he called politically motivated attacks that had exacted an unsustainable personal and financial toll on himself and his family.
"The strain on my office has been far beyond what I ever anticipated and the cost to state taxpayers has been enormous," Swallow said. "Now is the time for the madness to stop and the state to move forward."
Swallow said he and his wife, Suzanne, decided he would step down this past weekend, believing they could no longer weather the multiple investigations, including a $1.5 million probe launched by the Republican-dominated House, into his conduct.
"Pure and simple, I believe the House investigation was calculated to drive me from office," Swallow said Thursday afternoon, his wife seated nearby.
His resignation, effective Dec. 3 at 12:01 a.m., comes in the wake of a river of allegations and denials, investigations and revelations — some of which began to spill out within days of his inauguration in January.
Claims of facilitating bribes, promises of preferential treatment, extortion and receiving improper gifts piled up against Swallow and his GOP predecessor, Mark Shurtleff. Swallow called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and, in September, the feds said they would not file charges.
Other investigations, notably the House inquiry and a criminal probe by a pair of county prosecutors working with the FBI, continued and, Swallow said, wore down his financial ability to defend himself.
His public image nose-dived, with his approval rating sinking to around 12 percent and nearly four of out five Utahns believing he should resign, according to a poll by Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
Dealing with a House investigation that Swallow said was much more aggressive and far-reaching than he anticipated cost him $300,000 in legal fees — some of which was paid out of his campaign account — and left him "no choice but to step aside."
"I maintain my innocence of all allegations and I want you to think for a minute what that means," he added. "If I truly am innocent, as I claim I am, then today is truly a sad day in Utah, because an election has been overturned."
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said the House probe was a result of concerns from constituents and reports in the news media, not a political vendetta.
"That is what they will continue to do," Lockhart said, "is look at the facts."
Swallow said he notified Gov. Gary Herbert of his decision Wednesday night and the governor acknowledged accepting it Thursday.
"John’s decision," Herbert said, "is in the best interests of his family, his constituents and the state."
Swallow’s exit allows him to avoid any effort by the lieutenant governor’s office to seek his removal from office after a three-month investigation yielded evidence of multiple election law violations, according to sources familiar with the findings.
The lieutenant governor’s office delayed release of the investigative report as a result of the resignation. It may be made available Friday.
Swallow said he hasn’t seen the lieutenant governor’s report and the timing of his resignation was not tied to its release.
While civil action to remove Swallow from office is off the table, criminal penalties remain a possibility.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill — who along with Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings is investigating Swallow and Shurtleff — said his office never struck any deal with the departing attorney general or his lawyers, and a potential resignation would have no bearing on the prosecutors’ probe.
"Nobody has talked to us, and we haven’t talked to anybody. Our criminal investigation continues," he said Thursday. "We certainly have not had any deal with anybody. We eagerly await the [lieutenant governor’s] report to see where it fits in with our criminal [probe]."
Swallow said he is not concerned about the prospect of criminal charges. "I feel that if the county attorneys are fair and thorough, that I have no worries about any criminal charges."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Swallow’s representatives contacted him recently, hoping to discuss the possibility of the attorney general’s resignation with the president. Fearing he might have to preside over a future impeachment trial, Niederhauser declined, and asked Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, to meet with Swallow instead.
Bramble huddled with Swallow on Wednesday afternoon in his office, where Bramble said the attorney general floated the idea of resigning at year’s end and asked what the Senate would think of such a plan.
"My only reaction to him," Bramble said, "was: ‘You want to know my reaction? Resign immediately.’ "
Swallow said Thursday he walks away pleased with what he was able to accomplish during his 10 months in office, in particular his work to keep children safe and fight for Utah’s right to manage its public lands.
Blaming political enemies and the news media for spreading stories he insists were false, Swallow likened himself to a baby chick born with a speck, saying that other chicks will peck at the speck until the chick is dead.
"The first week in office I had this little speck and people kept pecking at it," he said. "I think there are many things we do in our lives that, put in the worst possible light, can raise a question or two. I believe the things I’ve done have been cast in the worst possible light, and I maintain I’ve been 100 percent ethical and honest in my dealings."
In January, allegations emerged that Swallow had helped St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson arrange $250,000 in payments to Swallow’s former employer, Richard Rawle, founder of the Provo-based Check City payday-loan chain. Swallow said Rawle used the money to hire lobbyists to help Johnson deal with a federal investigation into his I Works business. Johnson has said it was meant to bribe Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Johnson, who faces 86 federal charges and a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit, is under a gag order from a federal judge and declined to comment on Swallow’s resignation.
Other alleged misconduct also rolled out, including Swallow visiting businessman Marc Sessions Jenson’s posh Newport Beach villa and taking rounds of golf and shopping trips at Jenson’s expense — although Swallow said some of the receipts from those trips were forged and he denied buying an argyle sweater.
Jenson, who is doing time for securities violations, alleges Swallow and Shurtleff extorted thousands of dollars’ worth of favors at a time the businessman was on a plea deal arranged by the attorney general’s office.
Swallow did not name any of his accusers directly Thursday, but when asked if he had any regrets said that "there are people I wish I’d never met."
"That’s just the way life is," he added. "You just don’t know at the time that there are people who are going to have serious problems."
Swallow’s attorney, Rod Snow, called his client’s resignation a "sad day."
"I’ve gotten to know him well," Snow said. "Given half a chance, he would have made a pretty good attorney general."
Tribune reporter Tom Harvey and Washington reporter Thomas Burr contributed to this story.