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Reyes tackles tall tasks as Utah's new attorney general

Published December 31, 2013 7:23 am

Top of the list: Cleaning up after Swallow scandal, trying to stop same-sex marriage.
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Sean Reyes was sworn in Monday as Utah's new attorney general, vowing to restore trust in an office devastated by a scandal that forced out his predecessor, John Swallow, less than a year into his term.

Reyes comes on board not only on the heels of the turmoil created by the nearly yearlong Swallow scandal, but also in the midst of the office's fight to defend Utah's recently overturned constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, one of the highest-profile cases in state history.

But Reyes said he tells those who ask that he is undaunted by the issues he now confronts.

"Without an ounce of hubris, my reply to them is: I don't feel overwhelmed. I feel challenged," he told an audience gathered Monday in the Capitol Rotunda. "But with the team I have and the team I'm building and with your help … I'm confident we can rise up to any challenges in the future."

Reyes, 42, becomes the first ethnic minority — his parents are immigrants with Filipino and Spanish roots — in recent memory to hold statewide office in Utah.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who picked Reyes from three names submitted to him by the Utah Republican Party, said Reyes' rise opens a new chapter for the state and the attorney general's office, which persevere in the face of adversity.

"We stumble and fall and we pick ourselves up and we journey forward. In a large part, that's what this event today is about," Herbert said. "He has the right background and, most importantly, he has the right demeanor to take on what I consider a new beginning for the attorney general's office."

Reyes announced he is establishing a transition team — led by former GOP Congresswoman Enid Mickelsen and state Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem — to make recommendations on how to fix any problems in the office. Others will be added to the team later.

Reyes already has been in contact with outside auditing firms that have expressed a willingness to conduct administrative and financial reviews of the office to identify areas in need of improvement. And he has said he will ask for the resignations of all of the division chiefs, requiring them to reapply for their jobs — although he could only reassign them to other positions and not technically fire them.

"I'm extremely humbled by the weight and responsibility of this office. I respect tremendously what this stands for and what it has stood for in the past and what we can make it again," Reyes said. "This is not going to happen in one month or even one year. Some of the cultural changes may take several years. But make no mistake: It will begin today."

To that end, Reyes has said he will seek election in 2014 to fill out the remaining two years of Swallow's term. He told the audience Monday that he hopes to be taking the oath of office again in January 2015.

Reyes also addressed the current same-sex-marriage litigation that he is stepping into, with the state expected to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to stay a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby striking down Utah's constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and allowing more than a thousand Utah couples to wed.

"I'm starting day one with a case involving the defense of marriage. I'm not going to talk today, at least here, about the merits of the case, but this could be a potentially divisive case," Reyes said. "I don't think it needs to be divisive. With the respect and good will from those on both sides of the issue, I think we can disagree in a healthy way and still remember we are all still Utahns."

After Monday's ceremony, Reyes was asked if he viewed marriage to be a constitutionally protected right. Reyes said "marriage, as a fundamental right, has been developed in a number of cases with the Supreme Court."

Reyes earned his law degree from the University of California at Berkeley and spent 14 years at Utah's largest firm, Parsons Behle & Latimer, becoming a partner. Before Herbert named him as attorney general, Reyes was co-founder of Accelerate Ventures, a venture capital firm, and counsel for eTAGZ, a company developing a technology to embed digital files on product packaging.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke