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(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Former Utah Attorney General John Swallow helped raise money for Sen. Mike Lee during his 2010 campaign, including enlisting help from indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson.
Amid Swallow flap, Utah lawmakers brush up on impeachment

If legislators pursue the pricey process, there’s not much of a blueprint to follow.

First Published Jun 09 2013 12:12 am • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:33 pm

As controversy over embattled Attorney General John Swallow has led legislators to dust off and study Utah’s impeachment process, they find themselves in largely uncharted territory.

The state Legislature has never conducted an impeachment trial and has begun the process just once — a decade ago for a judge who resigned before the investigation could get underway.

At a glance

Impeachment rare in Utah, nationally

Utah » The state has never had an impeachment go to Senate trial. Only one official, 4th District Judge Ray M. Harding Jr. in 2003, had the House begin impeachment proceedings — but he resigned.

Other states » Just 13 state and territorial governors have been impeached — only eight have been removed from office in Senate trials. This year, Northern Marianas Gov. Benigno Fitial resigned after the territorial House impeached him. Illinois impeached and removed Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2009; Arizona did the same with Gov. Evan Mecham in 1988.

Federal offices » The U.S. House has impeached 19 people and the U.S. Senate has held 16 trials. Presidents Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson were acquitted in Senate trials, as were Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase and War Secretary William Belknap. Seven federal judges have been convicted and removed.

Allegations against Swallow

Utah Attorney General John Swallow has 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.

Specialconsideration? » Three Utah businessmen have said Swallow, as a fundraiser for his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff, in 2009, suggested that a contribution to Shurtleff’s campaign would win them special consideration if there were complaints about their operations to the attorney general’s office.

Rules violation?» At least two complaints have been made to the Utah State Bar, 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 attorney general’s office. During the trips, Jenson said they pressed him for fundraising help and other financial deals.

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That lack of precedence leaves lawmakers with wide latitude in deciding what an impeachable offense is, as well as how to investigate and prosecute it. It also raises questions about the cost of such an undertaking — though estimates range in the millions.

"I think the ultimate consideration is the public trust: Has the public trust been violated or lost," and would impeachment help restore it, says House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.

Rep. Spencer Cox, R-Fairview, a freshman lawmaker and attorney, jumped into the debate recently when he said some of Swallow’s spokespeople had distorted the threshold for impeachment.

"We are near the point that the only way to restore public trust in the attorney general’s office will be to either absolve him or remove him from office. And the only way to do that is through impeachment proceedings," Cox said in an interview, echoing a blog that attracted widespread attention.

Swallow is under investigation by the FBI, Salt Lake and Davis County prosecutors, the lieutenant governor’s office on numerous allegations, including that he helped broker deals to assist a businessman suspected of cheating customers and that he promised protection to potential donors to his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff. Swallow also faces at least two ethics complaints filed with the Utah State Bar.

The Utah House, which initiates impeachment, has been receiving a stream of emails and documents about the process from Lockhart in preparation for a June 19 House GOP caucus expected to be devoted to the topic.

Rarity » Lockhart says research by her and legislative staff members have found only two times in Utah history in which impeachment was even seriously considered.

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One was in 2003, when the House passed a resolution to begin an impeachment investigation into 4th District Judge Ray M. Harding Jr., who was fighting drug charges. "He actually resigned before we went through the process," Lockhart says.

The other was in 1935, when legislators talked publicly about impeaching Secretary of State Milton Welling. "But they never went through with it," she says.

The lack of a track record means lawmakers have little precedent to guide them. But the Utah Constitution sets up a process and standards of impeachable offenses that are similar to the federal Constitution — with some key differences.

One contrast is in the first step toward impeachment.

First step » The Utah House must pass an impeachment resolution by a two-thirds vote before it can start an investigation, according to a memo from the legislative general counsel.

The U.S. House can investigate without that initial action — as the U.S. House Judiciary Committee investigated and voted to impeach President Richard Nixon, who resigned before the full House took any formal action against him.

The Utah Constitution and laws allow any House member to introduce a resolution to begin the impeachment process. The House speaker then has discretion — if the House is not in regular session — to poll members to find if two-thirds of them are in favor of convening an impeachment session to consider it, says House chief of staff Joe Pyrah.

If two-thirds want that session, then the speaker convenes it.

A resolution then needs to pass by a two-thirds majority for the process to continue.

Lockhart stresses that adopting such a resolution would mean only that members deem an investigation in order, not that they consider Swallow guilty. "You have to call the impeachment session in order to set up the process whereby you investigate the allegations," she says.

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