A Republican state senator leveled harsh criticism Saturday at the Utah House for approving an investigation into Attorney General John Swallow, saying the action was rushed and ill-conceived.
"I’m embarrassed by the House," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, during a radio interview with Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan. Ivory was one of three House members who voted Wednesday against creating a committee to probe allegations against Swallow dating to December 2009, when he became deputy to then-Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
"It just baffles me that the House decided to go forward," Stephenson said, responding to Ivory’s argument that the House moved too quickly and without due deliberation. Ivory said the investigation goes beyond the proper and legal scope of such an inquiry, which should go back only to Jan. 7, when Swallow was sworn in as attorney general.
Ivory’s view matches that of Swallow’s attorneys. They say case law and the Utah Constitution make it clear that the House can consider matters transpiring only while Swallow has held his elective office.
Many of the allegations against Swallow — including one that he attempted to broker what indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson has called a "bribe" of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to derail a federal investigation of Johnson’s company — were purported to have occurred before he became attorney general. Swallow and Reid have both denied the accusation.
Stephenson also criticized the House for calling its special session to approve creation of the investigatory committee on July 3, the day before Independence Day. He said he was "troubled" by the timing and apparent rush to action. "I can’t understand the urgency."
Stephenson made the comments during his weekly Red Meat Radio program on KKAT 860 AM. Co-host Greg Hughes, House majority whip, expressed frustration that the controversial remarks came just as time was running out on the two-hour show.
"In hindsight, we should have had Representative Ivory on earlier in the show," Hughes, R-Draper, said later. "I would have defended the process we [in the House] went through."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday. But he has repeatedly urged senators not to comment publicly on the Swallow matter because of the potential for the Senate to be impaneled in the role of jurors should the House approve articles of impeachment.
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, declined to comment Saturday on whether Stephenson’s broadcast remarks seemed to compromise his impartiality and said it was far too early to speculate whether the House investigation will eventually trigger impeachment.
But, he said, "If I were a senator right now, I would be keeping my mouth shut."
Hughes defended Stephenson’s remarks as demonstrating a sincere interest in trying to understand why the House took the actions it did and said his comments were focused entirely on the process — not on the merits of allegations against the Republican attorney general.
Hughes strongly disputed criticisms of the timing of the special House session on the eve of a holiday, saying it was an effort to address a public concern promptly and at a time most House members were in town and available. The timing had the advantage, he said, of being likely to "be less of a media circus" because most Utahns are vacationing or enjoying outdoor activities.
Dee said the fact that just three of 75 House members were absent from the special session justified the timing. In the end, the GOP-led chamber voted 69-3 to form the investigative committee.
Ivory had argued previously and again on Saturday that House members didn’t have adequate time to review the resolution creating the panel and consider all the ramifications — including the broad scope of the probe. Those rushed decisions, he said, create "a very chilling precedent going forward."
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