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The House met July 3 to create the investigative panel, but a special session was necessary to ensure that the probe had the power to issue subpoenas and have witnesses testify under oath.
The House passed the changes with just a few dissenting votes. There was almost no debate or dissent in the Senate, either. Both bills go to the governor for his signature.
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The Utah Legislature agreed to pay $3 million to the owners of the Deep Creek Ranch to resolve a 16-year-old dispute over the State Armory Board’s purchase of 800 acres in Tooele County.
The Armory sought to exchange credits for surplus state and federal property for the land, but the federal government said it could not legally enter into such an agreement. The error resulted in 14 years of litigation as Deep Creek sought to resolve the issue.
The $3 million reflects some attorney fees, interest and a multiplier that includes any profit Deep Creek could have received for selling the surplus property. The money will come from the state’s rainy-day funds.
The House is already seeking to hire legal counsel to assist in the investigation and is also expected to tap an investigative firm. Two bills passed Wednesday would grant a license for out-of-state lawyers and investigators to work in Utah.
Swallow’s lawyers, in a letter to lawmakers this week, protested the formation of the committee, arguing the Legislature is overstepping its constitutional bounds by not limiting its investigation to events since Swallow took office in January.
They suggested that the House abandon the probe. They also requested the ability to subpoena their own witnesses and to participate in witness interviews.
The head of the House wasn’t swayed.
"I absolutely unequivocally disagree" that the committee is exceeding its constitutional authority, said Lockhart, who also rejected the idea that Swallow should be able to subpoena witnesses or take part in interviews. She compared the House probe to a congressional investigation in which targets are not given the same latitude.
"This is a legislative investigation," she said, "and we will conduct it as such."
The Utah Democratic Party said by giving Republicans a 5-4 edge on the committee, Lockhart had disregarded the precedent set by the evenly split legislative ethics panel, created to ensure its probes are not controlled by one party.
"[Republicans] had a choice between honesty and control, between fairness and brute power, and between restoring lost faith and partisan tactics," said state Democratic Chairman Jim Dabakis, who also is a state senator. "Unfortunately for the people of Utah, Utah GOP House leadership chose control, power and partisanship."
Swallow, who denies wrongdoing, has pledged to cooperate with the House committee, though he has expressed fears that the inquiry "could get crazy."
House leaders have said they desire to keep the panel’s work as open to the public as possible. The Alliance for a Better Utah, for one, is hoping for the same.
"At the end of the day, John Swallow is a public figure, and his actions while working for the state should be scrutinized in public view," the left-leaning group said in a statement before Wednesday’s special session. "In the event that changes to open-records laws are deemed to be necessary, we encourage caution. ... Above all, the Legislature should avoid any amendments that could inadvertently narrow current open-records law, thereby further exacerbating the public’s loss of trust in government and government officials."
Lee Davidson contributed to this story.
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