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Utah A.G. Reyes aims to clean house, de-politicize office

Published January 29, 2014 6:57 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When Sean Reyes assumed the role of attorney general a month ago, he inherited not only the internal troubles of the attorney general's office but also one of the highest-profile cases in Utah history: a defense of the state's constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Reyes told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday's Trib Talk that there's still plenty of work to be done in both areas, which is why he has brought in outside help.

The attorney general's office, which for months endured the strain of a scandal that embroiled former top cop John Swallow, should function as a law office, Reyes said, not a political one.

To clean house and transition to the office he envisions, Reyes has appointed state lawmakers and officials from across departments to participate in a team meant to facilitate this change.

The team, led by former GOP Congresswoman Enid Mickelsen and state Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, will make recommendations on how to fix any problems plaguing the office.

"I want a diversity of perspectives," Reyes said. "We represent a very diverse community here in the state."

The group has yet to hold its first meeting, Reyes said, but he expects progress once it convenes.

Reyes already has begun commissioning outside reviews of the office's administrative and financial practices — starting with the use of company vehicles — and shook up its top leadership earlier this month when he appointed former federal defender Parker Douglas as his chief of staff, replaced longtime chief deputy Kirk Torgensen with Spencer Austin and asked all division chiefs to resign from their posts and reapply for their jobs.

Hiring outside counsel to spearhead Utah's effort to defend Amendment 3, which bans same-sex marriages, in federal court will also assist in returning the attorney general's office's focus to in-state issues, Reyes said.

"We don't have the internal expertise. We had many, many lawyers trying to do their best from the A.G.'s office pulled off their normal cases," Reyes said. "We had a very large team without precise expertise both at the intermediate level and at the Supreme Court level. ... [By hiring outside help,] it puts seven to nine lawyers back in their jobs representing the state taking care of day-to-day functions. "

Earlier this month, Reyes hired Gene C. Schaerr, whom he described as an expert in dealing with appellate issues, to lead a team of attorneys in the state's defense of Amendment 3.

"He rose to the top and was able to offer his services at what, I thought, was quite a bargain," Reyes said of Schaerr, who agreed to offer his services at a discounted rate and will cap the fee arrangement with the state at $200,000 for the 10th Circuit appeal phase of the proceedings.

Reyes described the federal fight as his duty — to defend the state's laws. But he acknowledged the core issue of the legality of same-sex marriage is an emotional and personal one for many Utahns.

"I know this is a very sensitive issue ... with strong emotions on both sides," the Republican attorney general said. "To me, it was never a question of whether I would defend the law. However, it wasn't something I took lightly either."

Reyes spoke at a rally Tuesday evening intended to energize supporters of traditional marriage, telling the crowd that he did not believe the fight was a "losing battle."

On Wednesday, he explained that although the state may lose its case — at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals or, eventually, at the U.S. Supreme Court — Reyes will ensure the argument for states' rights is heard.

"Which laws I'm defending and not defending are not based on my personal view of things," he said. "It was something that I realized would be very difficult and would be very hurtful to people who are my friends, and who I care about, and who I love, and nevertheless, and not withstanding the difficulty of that dynamic, I didn't have any doubts about my obligation to stand up and defend Utah's laws."

mlang@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Marissa_Jae