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Herbert picks Reyes as Utah's next attorney general

Published December 24, 2013 10:44 am

Announcement • The governor says he's sure the new top cop can "turn the office around."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Sean Reyes traveled a wildly circuitous route from losing in a Republican primary to John Swallow last year to becoming Utah's next attorney general.

During those 18 months, the attorney general's office has been rocked by a morale-sapping and trust-draining scandal that drove Swallow from his post amid allegations of favoritism, pay-for-play fundraising and evidence destruction

Now it falls to Reyes to set things right.

Gov. Gary Herbert announced Monday that he picked Reyes to fill the vacancy created when Swallow resigned effective Dec. 3, choosing him over two other candidates sent to him by the Utah Republican Party after what Herbert said was a thorough vetting and interviews with all three.

"It became clear to me that the person who had the best fit for what we needed today, somebodyfrom outside the office who's been involved in the public and private sectors … was Sean Reyes," Herbert said. "He comes at a time that is unique in our state's history, and it's going to take a unique personality to come in and turn the office around and restore the public confidence."

Reyes, who is expected to be sworn in early next month, has committed to reorganizing the attorney general's office, saying he would ask the head of each division to resign and reapply for their positions. He plans to bring in auditors to do both administrative and financial reviews so he understands where changes may be needed.

"I am humbled by the responsibility and the weight of this office. I respect what it stands for and I'm deeply appreciative again, for the trust Governor Herbert has shown in me," Reyes said. "My hope is to win the trust of all of the citizens of our good state over the next year to come."

He said he has asked Brian Tarbet — the acting attorney general who has served as the general counsel in the office since January and was a finalist for the post — to stay on as a top deputy to help with the transition.

"We have some rebuilding and some reorganization, some serious issues we have to deal with within the office," Reyes said, "but the good news is we have some wonderfully talented lawyers there."

Reyes reaffirmed he will be a candidate for election next year — to fill the final two years of Swallow's original term — and believes he can campaign without being distracted from the work of overhauling the office.

With Reyes' selection, the Utah Democratic Party complained Monday that Herbert had "picked politics over statesmanship," adding that the new attorney general would be raising money from his first day as attorney general.

"The governor had an opportunity to select a strong person, a dedicated person who could have exclusively devoted a year to restoring integrity in the office," said party Chairman Jim Dabakis, who is also a state senator. "The governor could have picked a steward to clean up the mess left by [former Attorneys General Mark] Shurtleff and Swallow. Instead, Herbert has decided to play politics as usual and again put his rabid GOP delegates ahead of the people of Utah."

Likewise, the progressive Alliance for a Better Utah, said that, while Reyes is undoubtedly well qualified, his plans to run in 2014 will prove a distraction.

"One foot in the office and one foot in the campaign," the alliance said in a statement, "is no way to run the attorney general's office at this critical juncture."

Reyes' winding road to become the state's top cop began in 2011, when he launched his bid for the GOP nod. He lost the Republican primary to Swallow in June 2012 after coming under scathing attacks from a shadowy Nevada-based political-action committee.

On Friday, investigators with the Utah House Special Investigative Committee looking at alleged misconduct by Utah's former attorney general spelled out how Swallow's campaign team set up a shadowy network of nonprofit groups to hide money from Swallow's supporters — primarily the payday-lending industry — that was used to fund the anti-Reyes offensive.

Ads included television and radio spots attacking Reyes' ethics and a nonprofit, established by Swallow's campaign consultant, Jason Powers, also appears to have funded so-called push polling — calling Republican voters and suggesting, among other false allegations, that Reyes' father was an illegal immigrant.

Swallow's campaign publicly insisted the candidate had no knowledge of the ads — statements that emails obtained by the committee showed were orchestrated by the campaign staff and were likely false.

"I'm not bitter about that," Reyes said. "You have to feel a little bit vindicated in terms of having people realize what they were saying was false, and a lot of the rumors that were started and frankly still percolate were totally fabricated. So that's gratifying because it's not just me but my wife and kids who were suffering through a lot of that."

Reyes earned his law degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1997 and spent 14 years at Parsons Behle & Latimer, Utah's largest firm. He was a founding partner and counsel to Accelerate Ventures, a venture capital firm, and is counsel for eTAGZ, which owns a technology to attach digital files to products.

Herbert said he has asked Reyes to "divorce" himself from his business dealings. That will take some time, the governor said, and he expects Reyes to officially take office early next year. Tarbet will continue to serve until then.

Reyes and his wife, Saysha, have six children between ages 3 and 15 and live in Cottonwood Heights.

Besides Tarbet, the former adjutant general of the Utah National Guard, the other finalist for the attorney general's job was Robert Smith, managing director of Brigham Young University's International Center for Law and Religion Studies.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke