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Booking mugs of former Utah Attorneys General John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff.
A primer on Utah reforms to avoid Swallow-Shurtleff scandals
Legislation » Some changes made; critics call for nonpartisan law positions, campaign caps.
First Published Aug 03 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Aug 04 2014 10:11 am

After he was arrested and charged with 10 felonies alleging he had misused his office, former Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff complained loud and long that the case against him was a politically motivated hit, ordered by Democratic Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

Gill denied party played into the charges, noting they were made in conjunction with Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings, a Republican, and based on findings not just from investigators with the FBI and Utah Department of Public Safety, but also from the Republican lieutenant governor’s office and a GOP-led House committee.

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Hearing set

Former Utah Attorneys General John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff are scheduled to appear Aug. 18 in 3rd District Court. See the charges » A11

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Even so, Gill and Rawlings offer a simple solution: Make elections for top law enforcement positions — from state attorney general to county attorney to county sheriff — nonpartisan.

"The point is that certain institutions require a certain level of trust where just doing your job invites that criticism, and it ought to be beyond that criticism," Gill said. "By making them into nonpartisan positions, then you remove the politics and there are still appropriate checks and balances. … You let the professionals in those respective institutions just do their job."

In Utah, jobs such as fire chief, police chief and medical examiner aren’t partisan, Gill notes, because they are viewed as professional posts.

"Well, the law — and following the law and application of the law — is exactly that, as well," Gill said. "We would still retain the best elements of participatory democracy, but we would remove from it the worst elements of partisanship."

Rawlings has been pushing for years to strip partisanship from county attorney races, he said, even approaching three legislators with the idea.

"All of them told me I was crazy for even mentioning it," he said.

While the core functions of the office are nonpartisan, he said, the prosecutors still have to run the party’s gantlet to get the nomination. They attend party events, meetings and fundraisers, although Rawlings said he bypasses party functions.

"Talking like this is heresy, I guarantee you, in the Republican Party," Rawlings said. "But I really feel like our jobs are apolitical. Justice should be blind in reality, not just in rhetoric."

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A pared-down plan is having the attorney general appointed, rather than elected. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, offered a constitutional amendment to do just that during the past legislative session. It got little traction.

When he proposed the amendment, Weiler said, he believed Shurtleff and his anointed successor, then-Attorney General John Swallow, would be charged before the end of the 2014 legislative session, which he figured would prompt lawmakers to make the change. Now that they have been charged, he said, the landscape has shifted some, but the idea may not return.

"I’m not going to bring it back until there is a conviction of either Swallow or Shurtleff," Weiler said. "I think it will take that type of sea change to get two-thirds [support needed to amend the Utah Constitution] in the Senate or the House."

Gill said appointing the attorney general isn’t the solution, because it merely transfers the partisan pressures. In addition, voters lose the ability to boot an attorney general out of office.

De-politicizing elections for law enforcement posts and appointing the attorney general are just two of dozens of suggestions for changes that have flowed from the scandal hounding Swallow and Shurtleff, who face a combined 23 criminal counts for allegedly operating a high-stakes pay-to-play scheme. Both vigorously deny the charges and insist they will be cleared.

Some reforms were quickly adopted; others met resistance.

Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, who led the House committee that investigated Swallow, said the panel’s final report included a laundry list of nearly four-dozen proposals, most of them meant more as fodder for discussion than hard-fast recommendations.

Still, he argues that the already-enacted reforms — toughening conflict-of-interest disclosures, strengthening campaign-finance transparency and increasing the Legislature’s ability to investigate future misdeeds — will serve the public well.

"We have helped create a better climate for disclosure and transparency that I think helps the electoral process and hopefully will discourage or dissuade future campaigns from trying to take advantage," Dunnigan said. "That said, part of what we do every legislative session is address loopholes."

For now, he said, it may be best to wait and see how the changes help. But some argue the measures don’t go far enough.

Maryann Martindale, executive director of the progressive Alliance for a Better Utah, said the Republican-dominated Legislature essentially tried to make the issue all about two men — Shurtleff and Swallow — building a fire wall around them instead of taking on the more pervasive, systemic issues in Utah’s political system.

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