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Swallow-Shurtleff charges: a black eye and a silver lining

First Published Jul 20 2014 01:01AM      Last Updated Oct 02 2014 09:12 am

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General John Swallow announces his resignation, Thursday November 21, 2013 in Salt Lake City.

The scene was unprecedented: Two former statewide elected officials — who swore an oath to uphold and enforce the law — jailed after being arrested and charged with a slew of public-corruption charges.

Their alleged crimes, equally unprecedented, range from bribery to accepting rides on private jets and massive houseboats, vacationing in beachfront villas of a convicted criminal and lying to federal investigators about their dealings.

The alleged conduct of former Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow — as spelled out in the 23 total charges filed last week — is a stain on the office they held and their sworn duty under the Utah Constitution to enforce the law with fidelity.



"It shows the office was, at least at the top — and there were a lot of prosecutors who work in that office who are not implicated— at least for the two individuals who have been charged, there has been a lot of corruption and disregard for the very laws those two individuals were charged to protect," said Shima Baradaran, a law professor at the University of Utah. "It would be a shocking display of hypocrisy if there were some merit to these charges at trial."

But in the fall of Shurtleff and Swallow, several experts say, there is another lesson: That regardless of office and status and political party, nobody is above the law.

"It shows justice does work and elected and public officials should be accountable and will be held accountable," said Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, an attorney who served on the House committee that investigated Swallow. "The fact we were willing … to investigate our top law enforcement officials shows that, as a state, we’ve done the right thing and we’ve held people accountable, no matter where they serve government."

Even the harshest critics of Shurtleff and Swallow have emphasized throughout the unfolding scandal that there are more than 200 hardworking staffers in the attorney general’s office who do their jobs with integrity and should not be impugned by their bosses’ misdeeds.

Swallow and Shurtleff maintain their innocence. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill reiterated both are entitled to a presumption of innocence when he announced the long list of charges against the two men Tuesday. The two high-profile co-defendants, free through pretrial release agreements, are poised to make their first 3rd District Court appearances on the charges, 21 of which are felonies, on July 30.

In addition to allegedly taking bribes and lavish gifts, Swallow, who logged less than a year as attorney general, stands accused of destroying and falsifying evidence to cover up a deal with now-indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson; of soliciting a $120,000 payment from Johnson’s lawyer to help Johnson with his federal case; and failing to report income he had received for a side deal.

Shurtleff, who served 12 years as attorney general before handing over the reins to his anointed successor, is charged with ignoring his staff attorneys and dismissing a major mortgage-foreclosure lawsuit while negotiating for a job with a firm that represents the company; traveling aboard Johnson’s private jet; and promising special consideration to big donors.

"If the charges are proven, I think they did violate their duties to uphold the law and uphold the Constitution," said Kent Hart, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "They swore an oath to set aside their personal interest for the improvement of society in the whole, and the oath they entered was to do what was right, not to pursue their personal, private interests."

The report of the House investigation into Swallow’s conduct was even more scathing.

"Mr. Swallow hung a veritable ‘for sale’ sign on the office door that invited moneyed interests to seek special treatment and favors," the panel wrote. "While the corruption of any public office is unacceptable, the corruption of the office specifically tasked with ensuring equal justice under law is particularly harmful because it undermines the public’s faith that justice in the state is being dispensed equally and without regard to economic, social or political status."

Gill, at his news conference last week, cautioned against condemning the entire attorney general’s office or the legal system based on the alleged actions of Swallow and Shurtleff.

"I don’t think anyone should take the conduct of one or two people ... as an indictment of an entire system," Gill said. "Those are separate issues."

Steve Owens, a former president of the Utah State Bar, said he "winced" at some of the alleged behavior because "it feels like they’re not working for the public and, if that’s true, that’s a breach of trust."

But while the gears of justice may turn slowly, they usually reach the correct end — as he expects they will in this case.

"It has that Chicago feel to it. That’s how it feels. And we don’t want to be Chicago," Owens said. "It’s certainly embarrassing, but Richard Nixon’s impeachment [investigation] was embarrassing. But by all accounts in history, it was the right thing to do."

 

 

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AT A GLANCE

Charges against John Swallow:

Count 1 »  Pattern of unlawful activity, second-degree felony

Count 2 » Accepting a gift, second-degree felony

Counts 3-5 » Receiving or soliciting a bribe, second-degree felonies

Count 6 »  False or inconsistent material statements, second-degree felony

Counts 7-9 »  Tampering with evidence, third-degree felony

Count 10 » Misuse of public money, third-degree felony

Count 11 » Obstructing justice, third-degree felony

Count 12 »  Falsification or alteration of government record, class B misdemeanor

Count 13 » Failure to disclose conflict of interest, class B misdemeanor

Charges against Mark Shurtleff:

Count 1 »  Pattern of unlawful activity, second-degree felony

Counts 2-4 » Receiving or soliciting a bribe, second-degree felonies

Counts 5-6 » Accepting a gift, second-degree felony

Count 7 »  Accepting employment that would impair judgment, second-degree felony

Count 8 »  Tampering with a witness, third-degree felony

Count 9 » Tampering with evidence, third-degree felony

Count 10 » Obstructing justice, third-degree felony