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GOP picks Reyes, Smith and Tarbet as finalists for Utah attorney general

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(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sean Reyes listens to a parliamentary vote as The Republican State Central Committee met to choose three names to send to the governor to replace AG John Swallow. After five ballots they chose: Sean Reyes, Robert Smith, and finally Brian Tarbet, Saturday December 13 2013.

By Robert Gehrke

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Dec 14 2013 04:28PM
Updated Feb 14, 2014 11:46PM

Utah Republicans chose three finalists Saturday to replace former Attorney General John Swallow, forwarding the names ­— Sean Reyes, Robert Smith and Brian Tarbet — to Gov. Gary Herbert.

It falls to Herbert — who joked Saturday he gets "the last vote" — to choose one to serve as attorney general until after a new one is elected in November 2014.

Herbert said he doesn’t have a fixed deadline to make his decision, but hopes to decide before Christmas. He plans to schedule interviews with the three next week and take some time to vet each to make sure he makes the right choice.

"I think I’ve got three great people to choose from," Herbert said.

The three survived from a field of seven candidates, all of whom stressed the need to clean up the office and restore public trust on the heels of a yearlong scandal that drove Swallow from office.

Bret Rawson, a reserve police officer and defense attorney, who was edged out on the final round of balloting, said the meeting was necessary because of "an embarrassing and treacherous chapter that continues to unfold in the attorney general’s office."

"[The attorney general’s office] has been tarnished by the abandonment of principles in exchange for personal gain," Rawson said.

A key issue in the campaign is whether Swallow’s replacement should be focused on running again in 2014, or if the pick should only serve a year and then leave. Tarbet is the only one of the three who has said he won’t run in 2014.

"Let’s do first things first. No campaigns means no distractions, no fundraising, no politicking, no headlines," Tarbet said. Reyes and Smith counter that the office needs someone committed to making longer-term changes, beyond the next year.

Herbert said he understands the arguments on both sides and wants to hear more about the candidates’ visions for the office.

"Whoever is in there needs to get in there and have a review, top to bottom, and get the attorney general’s office back on solid footing to restore confidence and move ahead, whether they’re going to run for office again in 2014 or not," Herbert said.

Reyes landed 62 percent of the support from the central committee on the first round of balloting, which he said shows he has strong support within the party.

"I hope the governor would consider that, but the governor has to weigh a lot of different considerations," Reyes said. "I think it does reflect the support of the party and they saw that I worked hard and ran a clean race and have a real vision, not just in theory, but a practical vision on how to regain the public trust there."

Reyes, who lost to Swallow in a 2012 Republican primary, was a partner at Parsons Behle & Latimer and is currently general counsel for eTAGZ, a company that has patented a technology to attach digital media to products, and is a founding partner of Accelerate Ventures, a venture capital firm.

Reyes said he would ask for an audit of the office and fire all of the top officials and division chiefs and make them reapply for their jobs — although technically Reyes could fire only the top two deputies in the office.

"A real cultural change must take place to win back public trust in our office. It must be a law office first and foremost … not governed by political agendas or special interests," Reyes said. "My team would know from the get-go that I’m not there to make friends."

Smith was almost completely unknown when he filed at the last minute to run for the office, but emphasized the issues that are important to the conservative activists in the central committee and gained votes through each round of balloting.

"I was an unknown candidate before this week," Smith said. "It was exciting to be selected and I think as the members of the committee got to know me, their enthusiasm increased."

He said he would demand the federal government turn over public lands to the state, defend Utah’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and fight Obamacare.

Smith has been managing director at BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies since 2006 and teaches a course on taxation of religious entities at the university’s law school.

"Many of our basic rights and liberties are under attack and because of the things I have witnessed [working overseas] and the things that I fear, I never want to see the look of fear on the face of my children and grandchildren," Smith said.

Tarbet, who was general counsel in the attorney general’s office since Swallow’s inauguration in January, touted himself as the candidate who knew the office and how it worked, but distanced himself from the Swallow, although Herbert said it seemed clear the association with Swallow hurt Tarbet.

"The Swallow and Shurtleff problems arose long before I came into the office. I first met John Swallow after his election last year," Tarbet said. "I have witnessed the turbulence in the office and I have seen the resultant collateral damage."

But Tarbet said his experience in the office also means he’ll know how to repair the damage. "I’m prepared Day One to find it, fix it and get it done for you."

Tarbet finished second on the first round of voting, but couldn’t pick up additional votes in later rounds, and barely survived on the fifth round of balloting, edging Rawson 67 votes to 62 votes.

Tarbet was the adjutant general of the Utah National Guard until he was asked by Swallow to be his general counsel when Swallow took office in January. He had worked in the attorney general’s office between 1988 and 2000 and was chief of the tax and revenue division.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke

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