Judge denies ex-Utah A.G. John Swallow’s request for attorney fees tied to his elections case

FILE--In this March 2, 2017, file photo, former Utah Attorney General John Swallow talks to members of the media after his trial in Salt Lake City. Swallow has sued the state for reimbursement of the nearly $1.6 million in legal fees he accumulated during a court battle that ended with a jury acquitting him of corruption charges last year that led to his resignation. (Chris Detrick/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, file)

A federal judge has denied former Utah Attorney General John Swallow’s request for his attorney fees to be paid for in a now-dismissed complaint that accused him of federal election fraud.

Even though Swallow was successful in getting the Federal Election Commission complaint against him thrown out, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson ruled last week that Swallow is not entitled to more than $91,000 in attorney fees.

Benson wrote in his ruling that it was a “close call” but said the FEC did not file the complaint in “bad faith.”

“Under all of the circumstances, the FEC has met its burden of showing its case was substantially justified,” Benson wrote. “In so finding, the court does not intend to suggest that the FEC’s regulation and its efforts to defend it, had any merit whatsoever. The statute says what it says, unambiguously, and the FEC had no authority to write and enforce a regulation that went beyond the statute."

The FEC accused Swallow and now-imprisoned Utah businessman Jeremy Johnson of violating the Federal Election Campaign Act’s prohibition on making contributions in the name of another person.

The FEC alleged in court papers that Johnson, at Swallow’s suggestion, funneled contributions to candidates through other people. Under the scheme, candidates for federal offices allegedly got $170,000 in illegal campaign donations in 2009 and 2010.

Swalllow denied the allegations, and Benson ruled last April that the FEC “went too far” when it imposed liability on secondary actors beyond Johnson. The judge not only threw out the complaint against Swallow but also struck from the federal code the civil regulation under which the former attorney general was accused.

Swallow has a similar request pending in state court, where he is asking the state to pay $1.5 million in attorney fees after a jury acquitted him in March 2017 of public corruption charges stemming from his time in the Utah attorney general’s office.

Johnson is currently serving a federal prison sentence in an unrelated case, after he was convicted of providing false information to a bank.

The FEC complaint against Johnson is still pending.