Lawyers for the state have asked a judge to toss a lawsuit filed by former Attorney General John Swallow, who wants the government to pay his legal fees after he was acquitted of all charges stemming from one of Utah’s biggest political scandals.
Swallow, who served as Utah’s top prosecutor from January 2013 into December of that year, is asking the state to pay nearly $1.6 million for the team of lawyers that defended him for nearly five years. He first hired a lawyer in 2012, when state and federal authorities began investigating him, the lawsuit reads, and legal bills continued to rack up through the years as more attorneys were hired when prosecutors filed charges in 2014 and continued through a two-week trial in March 2017 that ended in Swallow’s acquittal of nine charges related to alleged public corruption, bribery and misuse of public funds.
In the lawsuit, Swallow cites a law that requires the state to pay a defendant’s legal bills if a public official is exonerated from charges filed in connection with activities that allegedly occurred while in office.
But Sean Reyes, Utah’s current attorney general, has refused to pay. Instead, Reyes’ office asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the state has no obligation to cover Swallow’s bills because he was not employed as attorney general at the time of his acquittal.
“You should dismiss this case because Mr. Swallow was not the attorney general when the event giving rise to his claim for attorney fees arose,” Assistant Attorney General David Wolf argued Wednesday.
Lawyers with the attorney general’s office also argued their office does not have the money — and said Swallow should have filed for reimbursement with the state’s board of examiners.
Swallow’s attorneys, Samuel Alba and Rodney Parker, argued in response that the law does not require that Swallow be a state employee at the time of his exoneration — only that the criminal charges arose out of Swallow’s actions while in office.
Third District Judge Andrew Stone did not immediately issue a ruling on whether to dismiss the case.
Swallow and his predecessor, three-term Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, were arrested in July 2014 at the conclusion of a wide-ranging investigation into allegations the two accepted monetary bribes and favors. They were originally charged with a combined 23 counts in connection with the alleged corruption.
Federal and state authorities, and the Utah Legislature, had been looking into the accusations for years before charges were filed.
The former attorneys general maintained their innocence throughout court proceedings.
When prosecutors dismissed the charges against Shurtleff in July 2016, he asked the state to reimburse his $1.1 million in legal fees, citing the same law Swallow’s attorneys used.
While 3rd District Judge Bruce Lubeck disagreed with the state’s “not in office” argument in Shurtleff’s case, he still ruled that Utahns would not have to pay the former attorney general’s debts because the dropped charges were the result of a prosecutor’s decision and not a jury’s acquittal.
At the time, Swallow told The Salt Lake Tribune he hoped Reyes would revisit his decision to deny Swallow’s reimbursement request.
Though the judge in Swallow’s case did not rule Wednesday, Stone noted that he felt Lubeck “got it right” when he rejected the state’s argument in Shurtleff’s case.