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Swallow's fate in House GOP's hands today

Published June 19, 2013 7:44 am

House GOP caucus could begin A.G.'s impeachment, prof says; some legislators say not to rush.
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As Republican House members prepared to meet Wednesday to discuss how to deal with a string of allegations against Attorney General John Swallow, a key lawmaker said it is "highly likely" the House will investigate the charges even as Swallow made a last-ditch attempt to explain the accusations against him.

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said Tuesday that he believes it is "highly likely" that the House will proceed with an investigation into the allegations against Swallow. He said it remains to be seen whether that would be done under the auspices of impeachment, or if there is some other way to proceed. Swallow would be the first state official ever to be impeached in Utah.

"I think that's one of the reasons we're going to have this discussion," he said. "I think that we're the people's House and we're listening to what they're saying and I've always said there will be a time where we will have to have information of our own and not rely on someone else."

He said he doesn't have faith that the federal investigation will produce anything soon, and as a result it will be necessary for the House to conduct its own fact-finding.

In a late-night email to lawmakers — one Swallow said he had hesitated to send out of respect for legislators — the attorney general offered an explanation for his side of the allegations against him, saying they had been "hyper-politicized by the media" and urging legislators to spare the state the cost of an impeachment investigation by letting ongoing probes conclude.

"It is difficult for me to understand how I ended up in this perfect storm of media frenzy fueled by desperate people hoping to avoid the consequences for their actions," he wrote.

Swallow said he respects the Legislature's right to begin an impeachment investigation. He urged them to do so responsibly and attached a two-page memo responding directly to allegations that have been made against him.

"I apologize for our current situation," Swallow wrote, "but would appreciate the opportunity to share accurate information with you and an opportunity for the current investigations to run their course so I have the opportunity to prove my innocence."

"We've tried to be very serious and very methodical and focus on the process, making sure that if we go forward with this, that we do it right," House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said Tuesday. "What we're talking about here — potentially at the end of it, not just the impeachment but the potential trial in the Senate and conviction — would lead to the removal of a popularly elected official, which is no small thing and something we should take very seriously."

Wednesday's House GOP caucus could prove to be the first step toward Swallow's ouster, according to Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University.

"This has the potential to be the tipping point where, if the party as a whole turns on Swallow, it could well be his demise," Cann said. "I'd even go as far to say, it's just a matter of time until folks just can't support Swallow anymore."

Whether or not the allegations are true, he said, it is becoming enough of a blemish on the Republican Party that GOP lawmakers have to respond.

The caucus is likely to cover some familiar turf for members, with Lockhart laying out the process for impeaching a state official and the standard for such action — material covered in a string of emails sent to lawmakers.

The Legislature's general counsel, John Fellows, will be on hand to help answer questions raised by legislators about the procedure.

After reviewing that initial groundwork, the 61 Republican House members are expected to have a broad and frank dialogue about where they go next.

The caucus is expected to be open — as is typically the case in the House — and likely will be crowded with reporters, photographers and spectators, but House Republicans could close the meeting with a majority vote.

"We pretty well understand what the issues are in front of us. I want to hear from the counsel … and from lawyers in our body about a path forward. What are the options from a legal standpoint?" said Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton. "I think it's too soon to rush toward impeachment, but I would like to see if there's a way we can get additional information."

To this point, Handy said, all the legislators have to go on are a slew of media reports. He said he and other lawmakers he has talked to are searching for a path short of impeachment.

"We're looking for a middle road," he said, "to find a way to gain more information without really having to pull the trigger on [impeachment] at this point."

Handy expects strong opinions to be expressed on both sides, but he doesn't anticipate the House caucus taking a position on how to proceed.

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, argues that it would be better for the House to go slow and wait for the various investigations to wrap up.

"There are five investigations going forward by professionals that do this sort of a thing for a living," Ivory said. "I think we take a deep breath and let the investigations run their course and let the rule of law run its course and if something comes out of any of the investigations, we look at our options and do what needs to be done."

Groups such as the conservative Sutherland Institute and the liberal-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah have called for Swallow's resignation. Gov. Gary Herbert said last week that he would fire Swallow if he worked for the governor. Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, has said Swallow should resign or step aside until the investigations are complete.

But the conservative Utah Eagle Forum launched an effort in recent days, asking its members to call their representatives and urge them not to impeach Swallow, arguing there have not been any claims of impropriety taking place since he took office, and that impeachment could interfere with ongoing investigations.

Swallow's attorney, Rod Snow, made a similar pitch in a letter to lawmakers earlier this month, asserting they did not have a legal basis to impeach his client.

Democratic Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, recently released a draft of a resolution that could trigger the impeachment process, itemizing the various allegations against Swallow, but he has not filed it and said he is not sure if he will.

Swallow faces investigations from federal, state and county authorities into numerous allegations, including that he helped broker deals to assist a businessman suspected of cheating customers and that he promised protection to potential donors of his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff.

Swallow, a former state legislator, congressional candidate and chief deputy under Shurtleff, rose to attorney general by snagging 65 percent of the vote in November. But his political star has fallen since he took office in January.

A new poll from Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy puts his approval rating at a measly 11.9 percent. Nearly eight in 10 Utah voters (78.4 percent) say he should resign, according to the survey, and 71.5 percent want the Utah House to launch impeachment proceedings.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Live stream of GOP caucus

Watch the Utah House Republican caucus live at sltrib.com starting at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday. —

Summary of allegations

Utah Attorney General John Swallow and predecessor Mark Shurtleff have come under scrutiny on a number of fronts:

Bribery allegation • Indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson has, at times, accused Swallow of helping to arrange to bribe Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Swallow says he only helped Johnson set up a lobbying deal.

Special consideration? • Three Utah businessmen have said Swallow, as a fundraiser for Shurtleff in 2009, suggested that a contribution to Shurtleff's campaign would win them special consideration from the attorney general's office if there were complaints about their operations.

Rules violation? • At least two ethics complaints have been made to the Utah State Bar, including one by the state's former director of consumer protection alleging Swallow violated attorney-client rules by discussing a consumer-protection case with a potential donor and suggesting the target meet with Shurtleff.

Withholding information? • The lieutenant governor's office is in the process of hiring a special counsel to investigate a complaint that Swallow concealed business interests on his candidate financial disclosure forms, including a company central to the Johnson deal.

Posh vacations • Convicted businessman Marc Sessions Jenson said Swallow and Shurtleff took posh vacations to his Newport Beach, Calif., villa on Jenson's dime while he was free on a plea deal with the Utah attorney general's office. Lawyers for Jenson, who is behind bars for securities violations and staring at new felony charges, also have alleged Swallow and Shurtleff orchestrated a "shakedown" of their client, extracting more than $200,000 in favors from Jenson for themselves and others, and then prosecuting him when he failed to go along with other demands. The lawyers are asking a judge to remove the attorney general's office from Jenson's case.

$2 million solicitation? • Businessman Darl McBride provided a recording of a 2009 breakfast meeting in which Shurtleff offered him $2 million to take down a website criticizing Mark Robbins, Jenson's former business partner. Shurtleff said he could get the money from Jenson because of his plea deal. Jenson said he refused.