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Utahn of the Year: Sim Gill played a pivotal role in the year's biggest stories

Published December 26, 2013 8:48 am

Gill played a pivotal role in the biggest Utah stories of 2013.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A prosecutor's job is to convict criminals, get them off the street and into a place where they will do no harm, and, with any luck, change their ways.

But prosecutors also carry a much larger burden: Find the truth. They must pursue that elusive ideal without fear of, or favor toward, the powerful. That mission becomes especially hard when the path points to possible wrongdoing by someone who is supposed to be on the same side of the law as they are.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill found himself in that uncomfortable place in 2013. Not once, but twice.

Time will tell how allegations of influence peddling by former Utah Attorney General John Swallow and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff, develop. Same goes for potential criminal charges in the shooting death of Danielle Willard by West Valley City narcotics detectives, a shooting Gill ruled unjustified.

But in the case of West Valley City, the Salt Lake County prosecutor has pulled back the sheet covering a culture of what could be law enforcement incompetence at best, criminal wrongdoing at worst.

In the wake of the Willard shooting, and the district attorney's dismissal of more than 110 drug cases because of investigative irregularities, the new police chief is taking a hard look at how things have been done in Utah's second largest city, auditing more than 1,300 criminal cases. West Valley City can't help but emerge as a better place to live, visit and do business.

Gill spent the past 12 months asking tough questions to shine a light on two of the biggest Utah stories of 2013, stories about abuses of power.

For that, he is The Salt Lake Tribune's Utahn of the Year.

Sim Gill grew up in Utah, graduating from Kearns High School and the University of Utah before earning a law degree from Lewis and Clark in Portland, Ore.

But his path to a career in law and order started in a small village in India, where, as an 8-year-old, he witnessed a neighbor being wrongly arrested and beaten for stealing jewelry. Gill remembers wondering: Who polices the police?

Ironically, that experience would be used against him when, after a nine-month investigation, he ruled that West Valley City officers were not in personal danger when they shot and killed the unarmed Danielle Willard.

First it was the officers' attorneys who made personal attacks on Gill, but the rhetoric soon turned political when the Salt Lake County GOP chairman proclaimed that the Democratic D.A.'s boyhood experiences had made him soft on criminals. "It might simply be that Sim is a cop hater," Chad Bennion surmised.

Gill's cool response: "At the end of the day, it is the facts and the evidence at hand that drive the situation. Nobody is above the law."

With the Swallow investigation, Gill knowingly entered tricky political water — mitigated by the fact that his partner, Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings, is a Republican and the FBI and the Utah Department of Public Safety are assisting.

Gill and Rawlings are leading one of five investigations of Swallow with allegations involving bribery, extortion and influence peddling. The U.S. Justice Department ended its probe in September, announcing it would not file charges against Swallow or Shurtleff. An inquiry by the lieutenant governor's office determined Swallow committed five election-law violations. But the attorney general's resignation precluded any further action.

A Utah House investigation of Swallow is wrapping up after two days of stunning revelations as special counsel Steve Reich and his investigative team told of Swallow falsifying calendar entries to cover up his relationship with indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson, and that Swallow gave preferential treatment to big campaign donors and went to great lengths to keep those relationships from public scrutiny.

Now, only the investigation by Gill and Rawlings continues, and presumably it will be up to them to follow up on the information ferreted out by the House probe. Two weeks ago they filed charges against a central player in the scandal, Tim Lawson, a close associate of Shurtleff with ties to Swallow as well. Lawson was charged with six felonies, accusing him of tax evasion, retaliating against witnesses, obstruction of justice and a pattern of unlawful activity.

Gill and Rawlings can't say where their investigation will lead. But the fact that charges have been filed shows that a couple of watchdogs are on the case, watchdogs with some teeth.

Sim Gill likely would tell you that what he has done in 2013 is nothing out of the ordinary; he's doing his job. In the past, he has said precisely that when someone attempted a compliment. He knows the job is bigger than he is. He describes his role as a "temporary caretaker" who serves at the will of the public.

"It's never my office," he told Tribune reporter Jennifer Napier-Pearce last week. "It is really your office and you just give me the privilege to tend it for a period of time."

He showed similar deference when asked about sanctioning Salt Lake County marriage certificates in the wake of U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby declaring Utah's same-sex ban to be unconstitutional.

Said Gill, moments after advising Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen to make licenses available to same-sex couples:

"Our commitment is to the rule of law, our commitment is to making sure the constitutional rights of every citizen in the United States and state of Utah are protected. As of this moment, that means we do not discriminate. If a person stands in line, as a citizen they have a right to apply for that license and we have a responsibility as a public institution to honor their expectation."

Sim Gill is just doing his job.

But it is a very tough job, a very important job — one that has profound bearing on how people in power in Utah conduct themselves, one that demonstrates to all that justice will be served for all.

In West Valley City, a young, troubled woman is dead at the hands of police, and scores of alleged drug offenders will not be prosecuted. In the Utah Capitol, the office that stands up for and protects law-abiding citizens is tainted and in question.

And across the state, Utahns watch as investigations led by Sim Gill play out.

Terry Orme is The Tribune's editor and publisher. Reach him at orme@sltrib.com. —

Online readers vote for Utahn of the Year

Comic Con impresario Dan Farr was the runaway winner with online voters for The Salt Lake Tribune's 2013 Utahn of the Year.

The founder of Salt Lake City's phenomenally successful fan convention attracted almost twice as many votes as the nearest competitor, which were not humans but water-friendly rodents, the so-called "Hero Beavers" whose dams helped keep diesel fuel leaking from a Chevron pipeline from reaching Willard Bay and, potentially, the Great Salt Lake.

The poll, which was posted at sltrib.com in early December, should be considered an unscientific sample of Utahns' opinions. Almost 2,000 votes were cast.

The Tribune's choice for Utahn of the Year, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, was a distant third among voters, followed by University of Utah economist and demographer Pam Perlich.

The biggest newsmaker of the year, former Utah Attorney General John Swallow, was low in the voting, behind documentary film producer Geralyn Dreyfous and former Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis.

Actor-director Robert Redford, the daughters of convicted murderer Martin MacNeill, Sen. Mike Lee and Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart came in at the bottom third of the ballot.

In dead last: Glenn Taylor of YouTube and Goblin Valley infamy.

Many readers offered write-in options. Among them: Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Utah; Tribune reporters Robert Gehrke and Tom Harvey, who broke and led the way on the Swallow saga; and the plaintiffs who filed suit against Amendment 3 — Karen Archer, Kate Call, Derek Kitchen, Moudi Sbeity, Laurie Wood and Kody Partridge. Their fight last week led to Judge Robert Shelby's historic decision making Utah the 18th state to legalize same-sex marriage. —

Past Utahns of the Year

2012 • Mormons Building Bridges

2011 • Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank

2010 • Kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart, her mother, Lois, and her sister, Mary Katherine

2009 • Kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart

2008 • Utah entrepreneur and philanthropist Larry H. Miller

2007 • First responders to tragedies including the Trolley Square shooting rampage and the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster

2006 • Latino leaders Jorge Fierro, Andrew Valdez, Ruby Chacon and Alma Armendariz

2005 • Pamela Atkinson, advocate for the poor

2004 • Utahns killed in Iraq and Afghanistan

2003 • Gov. Olene Walker

2002 • LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley

2001 • 2002 Winter Games organizer Mitt Romney

2000 • Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson

1999 • The letter that sparked the Olympic bribery scandal

1998 • Mary Ann Kingston, who suffered a brutal beating after escaping plural marriage

1997 • NBA MVP Karl Malone