Court sides with former A.G. John Swallow; his case to get Utah to pay $1.6 million in legal fees lives on

Former Utah Attorney General John Swallow listens during his trial at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017.

Former Utah Attorney General John Swallow’s efforts to get the state to pay his legal fees — after being acquitted of all charges in one of Utah’s biggest political scandals — will move forward.

Third District Judge Andrew Stone on Monday threw out the state’s motion to dismiss Swallow’s lawsuit in which he asks the Utah government to pay nearly $1.6 million, the costs amassed by the team of lawyers that defended Swallow for five years.

The ruling not to dismiss “means the case is ongoing,” Samuel Alba, one of Swallow’s attorneys, said Tuesday.

A spokesman for the Utah attorney general’s office declined to comment.

According to Swallow’s lawsuit, the former A.G. first hired a lawyer in 2012, when state and federal authorities started investigating him. The bills mounted as he hired more attorneys in 2014, when prosecutors filed charges, and through a two-week trial in 2017, when Swallow was acquitted of nine counts related to alleged public corruption, bribery and misuse of public funds.

Swallow and his predecessor, 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 criminal counts. Prosecutors eventually dropped the case against Shurtleff.

Swallow’s lawsuit 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 happened while in office.

The current attorney general, Sean Reyes, refused to pay. Instead, Reyes’ office argued that because Swallow was no longer employed by the state when he was acquitted, the state has no obligation to cover Swallow’s bills.

In his ruling, Stone wasn’t swayed by the government’s interpretation of the law.

“The court is not persuaded that the Legislature intended that an officer or employee remain in office or remain employed through the entire criminal proceeding until the point of acquittal in order to qualify for the reimbursement of fees,” he wrote, saying that if that were the case, it would incentivize the government to fire public employees accused of a crime.

Alba noted that 3rd District Judge Bruce Lubeck rejected the “not in office” argument when the state used it against Shurtleff, who sought reimbursement for $1.1 million in legal fees. Lubeck ultimately ruled the state didn’t have to reimburse Shurtleff, because prosecutors dropped the charges, rather than a jury acquitting him.

Alba said Swallow is awaiting a response to his lawsuit from the state, which should come in the next few days.