After latest Swallow dirt, some Utah lawmakers want to keep digging
By Christopher Smart
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Dec 20 2013 06:50PM
When Utah Attorney General John Swallow resigned, many legislators heaved a sigh of relief — their job was done. A complex and costly House investigation that could have led to the embattled official’s impeachment could be cut short.
But two days of hearings, which ended Friday, with investigators detailing evidence that Swallow’s campaign, among other allegations, may have secretly controlled hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from payday lenders has left some legislators with second thoughts about ending the probe.
Among them: Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, who is not a member of the House Special Investigative Committee. He said Friday’s revelations should lead legislators to continue the inquiry.
"I was not too much in favor of this a while back, but now that they have found out a few things and it has come out, I don’t know how they cannot continue," Jenkins said. "I don’t know how they can just stop now."
In Thursday’s hearing, Utahns learned that investigators believe Swallow destroyed evidence and created documents in an apparent effort to distance himself from indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson and other questionable donors. Some members expressed outrage at Swallow’s actions.
Through his attorney, Swallow said he had done nothing wrong.
Lawmakers’ reaction to Friday’s presentation was even stronger. House Majority Leader Brad Dee suggested that more information on Swallow’s finances may be necessary to craft better campaign finance laws. "I don’t think we’re done yet," said the Ogden Republican, who serves on the bipartisan committee.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who is not a member of the panel, agreed an investigation should continue — but not necessarily by the special committee. He wondered aloud whether the probe ought to be left to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings, who are conducting a criminal investigation of Swallow and his predecessor, fellow Republican Mark Shurtleff.
"If there are some things that need to be investigated, we should investigate. But we’ve got great people on the ground and this is their normal business," Niederhauser said, referring to the two county prosecutors. "Let’s let them get the information and then we can close loopholes and clean up [the campaign-finance laws]."
Several committee members said they favored sticking on the trail.
"We can’t just stop here. We have got to uncover this and clean our house in Utah," said Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry and a Utah Highway Patrol officer. "That is the only way we are going to solve this problem" of hidden political money.
Otherwise, he warned, committee members could be vulnerable to the same kind of underhanded tactics alleged against Swallow’s campaign consultant Jason Powers.
"I don’t think we can quit," said Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Holladay. "There’s so much out there that the public needs to know and deserves to know that I just don’t feel like we can give this up."
And Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said he supported continuing the probe so "my constituents can have faith in what goes on up here."
Lawmakers approved spending millions of dollars to renovate the Capitol’s exterior, he said, but " we have not gone far enough to protect the long-term viability of what happens inside the building."
Steve Reich, special counsel to the committee, said if lawmakers choose to keep going, "it would be our honor to continue working on this." But if they opt to conclude the investigation, "we respect that decision."
Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, believes the probe — whose price tag is approaching $3 million — has gone far enough and has plenty of information to guide campaign reforms. Pointing to the tax money already spent, Oda, who is not on the panel, said, "I can understand how the investigator would want to continue for his $750 per hour fee."
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who balked at authorizing the committee investigation in the first place, said the allegations against Swallow "are troubling" but the panel should call it quits. The Legislature’s jurisdiction, he said, is impeachment and nothing further.
"We have to establish a process that endures the test of time," he added, "and restrains government to its appropriate jurisdiction."
By contrast, the Utah Democratic Party urged that the investigation not only go forward but also be broadened.
"Clearly, the work of the House Investigative Committee remains unfinished," party executive director Matt Lyon said in a statement. "We need to ask the hard questions. We need to know how far the scandal goes, even if it makes us uncomfortable."
Democrats also focused on Powers and his Guidant Strategies firm for what they called "legally and ethically questionable activities."
"With an outstanding subpoena to Jason Powers, among several others left un-pursued, there is much to be learned, and much still to find out," Lyon said. "The truth must be brought forward and real, substantive policy solutions proposed."
Robert Gehrke and Lee Davidson contributed to this report.