In a series of nearly unanimous votes Monday, Utah lawmakers concluded the yearslong corruption scandal surrounding John Swallow by approving a $1.5 million settlement reimbursing the former attorney general for his legal fees.
Debate during Monday’s special legislative session was minimal, with House and Senate leaders arguing to their colleagues — some of whom participated in an investigation of Swallow’s activities as attorney general — that it was the lesser of two evils to authorize the payment and end the ongoing legal battle stemming from Swallow’s acquittal in 2017.
“The goal of this is to basically cut our losses for the state and move forward,” said Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, “and not cost taxpayers any additional funds.”
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, described the settlement as "a bitter pill to swallow” and that he wished there were a way around it.
But state law permits public officials to seek compensation for attorney fees when they are acquitted of criminal charges — as Swallow was in 2017 — and while there may be ways to improve the law in the future, King said, the question Monday was whether to settle or continue costly litigation.
“It is the prudent thing to do,” King said of the settlement. “It is the responsible thing to do.”
Senators voted unanimously to approve the settlement and for a corresponding appropriation bill releasing the $1.5 million from state coffers. In the House, four representatives — three Democrats and one Republican — opposed the settlement, and one representative — Salt Lake City Democratic Rep. Angela Romero — opposed the allocation of funds.
After the votes, the House Democratic Caucus released a statement saying that lawmakers were faced with a difficult decision.
“While voting yes to the settlement makes us uncomfortable,” they said, "doing so likely avoids costing taxpayers even more in a drawn-out legal battle.”
Swallow resigned as attorney general in November 2013, just months after his election, in the wake of mounting allegations of corruption and calls for his impeachment. In March 2014, a House special investigative committee issued a report that found Swallow had “hung a veritable ‘for sale’ sign” on the door of the Utah attorney general’s office.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, was not speaker at the time of the report but said Monday that he was proud of the work done by his colleagues on the investigative committee.
“The report and the findings of the report stand on their own,” he said.
“We did not move to impeach the former attorney general because he resigned,” Wilson said, adding lawmakers “did what we thought was right” in attempting to protect the integrity of elected offices.
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the state has a responsibility to pay Swallow’s attorney fees after his acquittal. And to continue litigation, instead of pursuing a settlement, would have inflated those fees, he said.
He credited the state’s attorneys for their work in negotiating the settlement, which precludes Swallow from bringing additional challenges related to his 2017 trial.
“They’ve come up with a good number,” Adams said. “And that number would have been substantially more if it hadn’t been for their efforts.”
But during debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, expressed some frustration at how the settlement might be perceived by Utah taxpayers.
“I wish it would not be characterized that we’re giving John Swallow money," Hillyard said. "We’re not.”
In addition to the $1.5 million settlement, the appropriations bill approved Monday included $1 million to fund promotional and outreach efforts for the 2020 census.
During the regular legislative session ended in March, the state had not appropriated any funding for the nation’s once-in-a-decade population count, despite the vocal objections of Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray.
Several lawmakers on Monday credited Kwan for her advocacy on the issue, as an inaccurate count of the state’s residents could adversely impact funding for government programs, the upcoming redistricting process, and scores of public and private efforts that rely on demographic data.
“I do want to thank everyone for their support and understanding,” Kwan told her colleagues during debate.
The $1 million appropriation will be divided between two efforts, with $500,000 being used for a statewide outreach campaign encouraging residents to complete the census, and the remaining $500,000 being used for grants aimed at increasing participation.
Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, described the grants as “seed money” that will ideally be matched by investment from the state’s cities and counties.
“We’d hope that other communities would join that effort as well,” Vickers said.
Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report.