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Pyle: How money poisons politics
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

There is no way that elected officials will change the rules, or the practice, of raising money for their campaigns because the dirty way it is done now hurts democracy. They will only make changes if preserving the status quo hurts them.

Today, both the Utah attorney general and his predecessor are being hurt by their participation in a system that makes all the allegations being thrown at them wholly plausible. Even if they aren't true.

And it is making the whole of the Utah political establishment — Republicans all — look pretty shabby. Whether they deserve to or not.

It's time for the laws governing political favor-seeking in Utah to change. But if this series of unfortunate events doesn't force such a change, its hard to see that anything — short of an FBI sweep — will.

Assume, for a moment, that John Swallow, the new attorney general, and Mark Shurtleff, his mentor, are telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth when they put up all their frantic defenses against claims that they have been collecting scads of campaign cash in return for the special favors they might be able to do for some businessmen whose enterprises are particularly vulnerable to government crackdowns.

Shurtleff, particularly, was in high dudgeon last week when it was reported that some Utah businessmen have been singing to the FBI about their allegations that they were told by Swallow, in Shurtleff's presence, that some sizable campaign contributions from them would put them on a list of businesses whose future transgressions might be overlooked.

Shurtleff insisted that he would never sit still for the suggestion that a campaign gift would buy influence in his office. He said he routinely told his donors that their gifts will not win them special privileges should they later find themselves under investigation.

That may be what he tells them. That may be what he believes. But does anyone else buy it? Never.

Sharp businessmen do not give thousands of dollars to a political candidate, particularly to a candidate with no serious opposition, out of the goodness of their hearts, or even out of a concern for good government.

They do it to buy influence. To have the ear of someone in a position of power, someone who will decide whether their own businesses, or those of their competitors, will be investigated, prosecuted, fined or shut down.

If Shurtleff, Swallow or any other office holder in the state of Utah really thinks that all that money comes their way for any other reason, they may not be crooked. But they sure are dumb.

And they are setting themselves up for a hell of a fall. Even if the public official doesn't think there's a quid owed for the quo, many of the people who made the donations will think so. And, if they later face trouble with the law, whether the accusations are justified or not, those donors would be fools indeed not to cash in what they will believe, no matter what the officials said, is an IOU.

And if the donors don't get what they want, they will be in a position to incriminate, insinuate, even offer to give up for indictment, the officials they gave money to. Even if the official didn't break any laws, they can be made to look really stinky in the public eye.

And no amount of campaign cash is worth that.

The members of Utah's political class should finally put serious limits on the amount of money that can be given to candidates for public office. Not for our good, but for theirs.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, has watched politicians make the same mistakes, over and over, in three different states, for 35 years.

gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @debatestate

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