Ex-A.G. John Swallow says his corruption trial will make him a better attorney general

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Former Utah Attorney General John Swallow, charged with public corruption, at a pre-trial hearing in Salt Lake City, Friday, Jan. 6, 2017.

John Swallow on Friday compared his decision to run for Utah attorney general — the post he resigned from in 2013 in the throes of scandal — to a cardiac surgeon who returns to work after a heart attack.

The experience of being prosecuted and later acquitted of corruption charges showed him how political and government power can be weaponized, Swallow said, and gave him a new perspective on the role of the state’s top law enforcement officer.

“His job is not to win at all costs,” Swallow said. “His job is to find justice.”

Swallow’s entry into the attorney general’s race on Thursday surprised many in the state’s political community. A spokesman for incumbent Attorney General Sean Reyes, told The Tribune he was unable to comment because couldn’t “stop laughing.”

Swallow, the hand-picked successor to three-term Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, was elected in 2012. But days after his inauguration, The Salt Lake Tribune reported his involvement in an alleged scheme to help a friend enlist a powerful U.S. senator, then Majority Leader Harry Reid, to avoid criminal prosecution. Swallow was subsequently accused of extorting gifts and favors from an admitted fraudster who was under the supervision of the Attorney General’s Office.

Swallow denied the allegations and was later acquitted of all criminal charges and paid a $1.5 million settlement by the state. But a Utah House investigation — launched in preparation of possible impeachment proceedings — concluded that Swallow had hung a “for sale” sign on the Attorney General’s Office.

Swallow maintains his innocence and on Friday reiterated his belief that the investigations and charges against him were the result of a “political setup.” And after successfully fighting the allegations in court, Swallow said, anyone who continues to characterize him as a criminal is either biased or conditioned by false information.

“In this country you’re innocent until proven guilty,” Swallow said. “I went into the trial innocent and I came out innocent.”

Damon Cann, a professor of political science at Utah State University, said there’s no doubt that Swallow has had legal decisions come down in his favor. But a challenge for Swallow remains, Cann said, in making the case of his innocence to the public at large.

The addition of a former attorney general to the 2020 election will add interest to the race, Cann said, but Reyes remains the frontrunner among the three Republican hopefuls, including Utah County Attorney David Leavitt.

“Whether it’s fair or not, it is very difficult to make a comeback after corruption charges, even if one is cleared,” Cann said. “After the headlines he’s been through, it will be an uphill battle to unseat Reyes.”

Swallow said he would consider himself to be an underdog independent of his background. He said he approaches any election with an attitude that he has to work twice as hard as his opponents.

“I’ve never gotten in a race in my life that I didn’t plan to win,” he said.

He also suggested that Reyes’ record as attorney general has created vulnerabilities for the incumbent. He specifically questioned Reyes’ involvement in sting operations like a 2016 anti-prostitution effort at the Sundance Film Festival and trips to Central America targeting human trafficking operations.

“In many ways it involves issues that don’t really concern the state,” Swallow said. “If they’re in a foreign country, how do they really relate to the state of Utah?”

Swallow also pointed to questions around Reyes’ campaign donations from Washakie Renewable Energy, whose executives have pleaded guilty in a massive federal fraud involving hundreds of millions of dollars. Representatives of Reyes originally told reporters that $50,000 in donations had been placed in escrow, pending the conclusion of the federal case. Later the campaign acknowledged it had spent the funds as part of regular campaign operations.

“I was never accused of intentionally spending proceeds from a massive criminal fraud,” Swallow said.

Alan Crooks, campaign spokesman for Reyes, declined to respond to Swallow’s criticisms and suggested voters review the history of the Swallow scandal.

“John Swallow is claiming he is innocent,” Crooks said. “Utahns should just look at his record and decide for themselves.”

If elected, Swallow said he would focus on training and encouraging prosecutors to drop cases that aren’t fit for trial. He also said there would be greater oversight of cases to protect against personal, political and professional biases.

He said he would bring a philosophy to the office that no one is above the law, and that no one is so high up the chain that they can’t have another person looking over their shoulder. The state is better off when the attorney general is careful, rather than overly aggressive.

“Its not like I’m any softer on crime,” he said. “It’s that I think we should be fairer on crime."