Even before heading his first meeting of the special committee, Rep. V. Lowry Snow is out as leader of the House panel investigating Attorney General John Swallow.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart made the move a week after The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Snow, R-St. George, had done legal work for one of Swallow's main accusers: indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson.
Lockhart on Thursday named another committee member, Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, as the new chairman and replaced Snow on the panel with Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton.
"Representative Snow is above reproach, which is why he was chosen as chairman in the first place," Lockhart said in a news release. "But whether we like it or not, perception matters in the public sphere. It pains me to lose him, his talents and leadership skills."
The shift was characterized as a joint decision between Lockhart and Snow, an attorney and former president of the Utah State Bar, who said he felt that, in order for the probe to be conducted with integrity and transparency, it was best if he stepped aside.
"This will allow the public to focus on the investigation," Snow said, "and not on who is doing the investigating."
The change leaves just one attorney Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork on the committee. Dunnigan owns an insurance agency; Gibson works for Intermountain Healthcare.
Dunnigan, who has served in the House since 2003, said he was surprised when the speaker asked him to take over as chairman, but believes Lockhart made the right decision in replacing Snow.
He said the committee still plans to hold its first meeting Aug. 6 and will proceed on the path Snow started.
"We've been given a job to do by the House and now we plan on moving ahead with it," Dunnigan said.
Less than 24 hours after Lockhart had appointed Snow to head the investigation of Swallow, The Tribune reported court filings that showed Snow had represented Johnson in a legal dispute in 2008 and currently represents several businesses accused of having ties to Johnson in a Federal Trade Commission case.
Snow had said he didn't disclose the potential conflicts to Lockhart when she asked him to lead the committee and that, while his partner did most of the work on the matters, he would be willing to bow out.
The nine-member House committee, consisting of five Republicans and four Democrats, has been given the power to issue subpoenas and interview witnesses under oath as it investigates a string of allegations against Swallow.
Swallow's attorney, Rod Snow, who is not related to Lowry Snow, had said he didn't have a problem with the St. George lawmaker remaining as head of the committee.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, who is also a state senator from Salt Lake City, said he is glad Lockhart made the switch but remains frustrated that a committee made up mostly of Republicans will investigate a GOP politician.
The panel's partisan makeup, he said, still hangs out there "like a pile of dirty socks in a hot car."
"The noble decision would have been, seriously, given the fact that the first chairman didn't work out, to appoint a Democrat, put this whole thing above suspicion," he added. "But clearly this whole partisan thing means a lot to Republicans and it's sad."
Lowry Snow is listed on court documents as the attorney for Johnson and his business associates, brothers Todd and Jason Vowell, in a 2008 lawsuit filed against the men. The case ultimately was dismissed.
It was Johnson who sparked the attorney general scandal when he alleged that Swallow tried to help him arrange to bribe Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to fend off an FTC probe. Swallow insists he merely tried to help Johnson hire a lobbyist and denies wrongdoing. Reid has said he had no knowledge of any deal.
Snow also represents several companies in an FTC case against Johnson in Nevada, trying to prevent a court-appointed receiver from freezing the assets of the businesses. The receiver believes Snow's clients had ties to Johnson's businesses and the Vowells.
Snow also represented Paydirt, L.P. a company started by the Vowells that did several business deals with Johnson in a bankruptcy case in which it sought to recoup money from Wayne Reed Ogden, who pleaded guilty to several fraud counts.
Dodging conflicts in elections probe
Nearly all 14 law firms that applied to serve as special counsel for an investigation of whether Utah Attorney General John Swallow committed three election-law violations disclosed conflicts of interest in the case.
Some were mild, others severe.
In applications to the lieutenant governor's office, the firms outlined potential problems: Some attorneys were connected to state officials on social-networking sites; others had played on baseball teams with Swallow's political opponents; and one firm represented the uncle of indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson a key figure in the Swallow saga in a Nevada case.
That firm was Snell & Wilmer, the company picked to lead the investigation.
Snell & Wilmer acknowledged the relationship with Scott Muir, Johnson's uncle, but said the case had been handled exclusively by its Las Vegas office. The Swallow probe will be handled by 10 pre-screened attorneys in Salt Lake City.
The Phoenix-based law firm boasts more than 400 employees in offices across the western United States and in Mexico. There's bound to be a conflict somewhere,Â said Mark Thomas, chief deputy for the lieutenant governor's office.
"It was very difficult to find somewhere there was zero connections or conflicts whatsoever," Thomas said.Â "In this case, we didn't feel the connection was enough to disqualify them from leading this investigation."
Snell & Wilmer did not initially disclose a 2007 incident in which the firm was accused of "deceitful conduct" in Utah's federal court for backdating documents. But after an inquiry from The Salt Lake Tribune, the company told Thomas it had fired the responsible attorney a "junior employee" and has not had any problems since.Â
"That's good enough for us," Thomas said.