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Swallow probe panel seeks crackdown on data destruction

Published February 13, 2014 8:15 am

Swallow scandal • Bipartisan committee unveils proposed ethics and election reforms.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In the aftermath of the investigation of former Attorney General John Swallow, Utah lawmakers are looking to make it a felony to fabricate or destroy documents to impede a legislative probe.

That proposal was one of a list of recommended changes arising Wednesday from the House inquiry after attorneys accused Swallow of creating documents and destroying evidence as part of a frenzied scheme to thwart investigators and cover up politically damaging ties to questionable campaign donors.

Seven of Swallow's electronic devices vanished, crashed or had data erased. Moreover, investigators found that Swallow, who resigned in early December amid a yearlong scandal, fabricated calendar entries and invoices for consulting work he did on a Nevada cement project.

But the law against tampering with evidence did not apply to legislative investigations or audits. Legislation unveiled Wednesday — one of four bills expected to arise out of the House probe — would make it a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Another measure discussed Wednesday by the House Special Investigative Committee would significantly expand financial reporting from candidates. For example, it would require a candidate to itemize how money paid to a consultant is spent if it is going for the campaign.

Swallow paid about $450,000 to Guidant Strategies, run by campaign consultant Jason Powers, but there was little or no detail provided about where the money went.

"We saw this not only with Swallow, but there are other candidates," said Mark Thomas, Utah's elections director.

Legislators also worried that reporting requirements and other laws could become too onerous and trip up well-meaning office seekers, and that it may be impossible to prevent future scandals through lawmaking.

"We found a lot of bad stuff, and I think our intent is to make sure that doesn't happen again," said Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, but he questioned, "at what point do we go where we start getting legislators who make mistakes, not intending to but with everything else going on [they do]?"

Said Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Holladay: "It just seems to me that if someone wants to be devious and beat this, they're going to beat it anyway."

Legislative attorney Tom Vaughn acknowledged limits exist to what lawmakers could do.

"We can plug up a bunch of these holes," he said, "but we're never going to plug them all."

Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, chairman of the bipartisan House committee, assured the reforms would not be a "toothless tiger."

"It's just a matter of how many teeth we're going to put in that tiger," he said. "What we don't want the tiger to do is bite people that shouldn't be bitten."

One of the chief reforms would make it a crime to destroy evidence to obstruct a legislative investigation.

Investigators in the Swallow case found that information was wiped off his state-issued laptop and desktop computers; an external backup hard drive was left on an airplane; his home computer crashed; his campaign iPad was left in a cab in Washington, D.C.; and his cellphone and handheld data device were all replaced without transferring data.

In addition, an unknown number of emails and calendar entries were lost.

Dunnigan said computer forensic experts recovered 99 percent of the information from Swallow's home computer and received some 1,300 emails responsive to a subpoena issued to the former Republican attorney general.

Those emails, Dunnigan said, corroborate the panel's earlier findings, released publicly in December.

In two days of meetings, investigators spelled out a pattern of special favors for wealthy friends and donors, shadowy fundraising, attempts to conceal contributors and sneaky attacks against political rivals.

Swallow has proclaimed his innocence throughout the ordeal.

Committee members received a draft of their special counsel's final report. Under law, that report will not be publicly released for 21 days so revisions and corrections can occur.

Dunnigan said the panel has spent $3.8 million on its probe, including $1 million trying to recover data missing from Swallow's digital devices and litigating subpoena fights.

Additionally, legislation stemming from the Swallow investigation would tighten some requirements for candidates to disclose financial information on their conflict-of-interest forms. More specifically, it would define an officer of a company and require a candidate to disclose involvement with a company in the year before the filing.

Swallow did not disclose his role in some companies because he removed his name as an officer the day he filed his financial-disclosure form.

It would be a class B misdemeanor for a candidate not to file a conflict-of-interest form or to file false information on it. There are no penalties under current law.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Reyes responds to fleet audit

Attorney General Sean Reyes renewed a commitment to holding his office accountable in its use and documentation of its 54-vehicle fleet, according to a statement released Wednesday.

Reyes, who cited the results of a state audit, said he has "already taken certain actions related to the report."

The audit examined how the attorney general's office was using and managing its vehicles, 16 of which were shared and 38 of which were assigned to staffers with "commute privileges," meaning the cars can be taken home.

Among the actions Reyes has already taken is stripping vehicle privileges from two non-investigator employees, who the audit found were not documenting their vehicle use correctly. Auditors raised questions about the necessity of the assigned cars to these workers in the first place.

The audit examined car use from July 1, 2012, through 2013 and did not include any information or analysis of how embattled ex-Attorney General John Swallow used his state car, which was given to him as part of his compensation package.

Reyes stated if the office finds it has a surplus of vehicles, he will return the extra to the state.

"Where we find inadequate rules, we will replace them with higher standards," Reyes said in the statement. "Where there are adequate rules laxly or inconsistently applied, we will be consistent."

He also said employees will undergo training to better clarify ethics protocols and practices.

Marissa Lang