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Utah attorney general candidates focus on public trust

First Published Aug 30 2014 04:06PM      Last Updated Aug 30 2014 10:28 pm

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes holds a brief press conference at the Utah State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, to announce that the U.S. Supreme Court put same-sex marriages on hold, granting the state's request for a stay.

As Utah’s two previous top lawmen face charges of bribery and other crimes, the candidates running to replace them as state attorney general this year each promise to repair public trust and reform the scandal-rocked office.

"It’s the thing that’s on the top of everybody’s mind," Democratic contender Charles Stormont told The Associated Press. "They want to know, What are you going to do to make sure that can’t happen again?"

Sean Reyes, his Republican opponent and the interim Utah attorney general, said he gets asked about his predecessors, "I don’t even know how many times a day. There’s obviously a great deal of interest."

Both candidates speak about new avenues for ethics complaints and accountability. Each has pledged to avoid campaign donations from industries that could create a conflict of interest with the attorney general’s office.

John Swallow, who resigned from the office in late 2013, spent much of last year battling allegations of murky dealings with businessmen, some in trouble with regulators.

Swallow and his predecessor Mark Shurtleff were charged this summer with bribery and a host of other counts. They’ve denied any wrongdoing.

Reyes treads carefully when discussing the issue, saying he wants to let the bribery case against his fellow Republicans play out.

At the same time, Reyes speaks from the office of the attorney general and the campaign trail about fixing the public’s broken faith in the office.

Reyes was appointed in December to hold the office until this November’s election to fill the last two years of Swallow’s term.

Most years, the attorney general’s race is eclipsed by higher profile elections for president, the governor or U.S. senator.

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said this year’s race is unusual because it involves an unelected incumbent and comes in the wake of a high profile scandal.

The scandal gives Democrats and Stormont a better-than-usual chance this year, but "on the other hand," Burbank said, "if you had to bet on somebody, you’d probably bet on Reyes to keep his position, just because he’s a Republican in a remarkably Republican state."

During the eight months Reyes has been in office, he’s replaced half a dozen top managers and ordered an outside investigation into Shurtleff’s influence on a fraud case years ago.

Stormont says Reyes hasn’t done enough, and has said the same Republicans who picked Shurtleff and Swallow "also helped bring us Sean Reyes."

Reyes said he expects such arguments but said they won’t stick. "People realize very clearly that this is a totally different regime," he said.

Reyes cites his decision to ask 16 division directors to re-apply for their jobs, along with about 100 other candidates. Only one executive-level employee has remained in place from previous administrations, he said.

"Anybody who tries to make that case, that we haven’t shaken things up, needs to just come and look at the before-and-after picture," he said.

Stormont, who has spent the past six years working in the civil division of the attorney general’s office, said morale among his colleagues is low.



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