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Utah attorney general’s race turns into a name-calling slug fest

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Attorney General Sean Reyes speaks during a news conference on Aug. 21, 2018.

While eclipsed by the governor’s race, the election for Utah attorney general is heating up as the state political party conventions approach, with some candidates calling each other crooks or liars.

Incumbent Republican Attorney General Sean Reyes is under attack for once promising to return $51,000 in donations from a company whose principals were convicted of fraud, but later said the money had been spent. He’s also taking big donations from industries ranging from high-interest lenders to opioid manufacturers and tobacco companies.

Meanwhile, opponents say that former GOP Attorney General John Swallow — who resigned in one of Utah’s biggest political scandals and now seeks back his old job — may have been acquitted in a criminal trial, but that doesn’t mean he’s innocent of some serious wrongdoing.

GOP Utah County Attorney David Leavitt and Democratic defense attorney Greg Skordas are taking some return fire from Reyes and Swallow for criticizing them. Meanwhile, Democrat Kevin Probasco — who until two months ago was a Republican — is largely staying out of the line of fire, and is considered by others to be a minor candidate.

The incumbent

Swallow and Skordas say they decided to run because they were infuriated by Reyes’ actions regarding Washakie Renewable Resources. Five of its principals — most with ties to the Kingston polygamist group — were found guilty on federal charges in a fraud scheme involving $1.1 billion from a government biofuel program.

In 2016 after federal agents raided Washakie’s offices, Reyes’ political consultant, Alan Crooks, who speaks for Reyes on all campaign matters, said the campaign would put donations from the company in escrow, where it would remain pending the outcome of the investigation. The donations amounted to nearly $51,000.

In 2018, Crooks reiterated that the money was still in escrow and called Tribune questions about that “stupid.” But last December, the campaign’s website said by the time it was contacted in 2016, the money had been spent so no refund would be made — even though the campaign continually raised big money from many sources and funds are all mingled into one pot once they are accepted.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Attorney General Sean Reyes speaks during a news conference on Aug. 21, 2018.

In an interview now, Crooks said it would be inappropriate to use donations from others to try to reimburse Washakie, and any money now would go to the U.S. Attorney’s office because of the legal status of Washakie donors — and that office said it would not accept any money.

“That’s just misleading. Maybe you even call it a lie,” Swallow said. “When I saw that, I thought we don’t have integrity in the Attorney General’s Office at the top, and I’ve got to run.”

Crooks — speaking for Reyes, who was dealing with the death of his father — said Swallow has no room to talk given his scandals in office. “That’s hilarious is so many ways.”

Democrat Skordas said, “The only reason that company [Washakie] would donate $51,000 to the attorney general is to get him to look the other way. Do you call it a bribe? You can call it whatever you want, but that’s no different than what Reyes’ two predecessors [Swallow and Mark Shurtleff] made a living doing.” He said it also persuaded him to run.

“It’s not the only group that paid him to look the other way,” Skordas alleged.

Republican Leavitt also raised red flags about such donations collected by Reyes. “We have a real culture of the Attorney General’s Office being for sale.”

In the last three nonelection years — 2017 through 2019 — Reyes raised a huge amount: $960,000. But he spent even more: nearly $1.1 million at a time he was not yet facing reelection.

Almost half the money he spent, $487,000, went to Crooks’ Comprehesive Strategic Solutions for campaign consulting. Reyes spent $90,000 on personal travel in those three years — which Crooks said saved taxpayers money because at least some of it likely was reimbursable by the state.

Some questionable donations Reyes accepted include $5,000 from Bristlecone Holdings, which has been criticized in the press for a possibly fraudulent lending operation.

He took $5,000 from the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake tribe in California, which had been sued by federal regulators for its payday loan operations. The lawsuit was withdrawn after the Trump administration changed federal stances on such lenders.

During the three nonelection years, analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune shows Reyes also accepted $66,000 from multi-level marketing firms; $32,500 from high-interest lenders that offer payday or title loans; $26,000 from timeshare companies; $18,000 from tobacco or e-cigarette companies; and $5,000 from a casino.

Crooks said Reyes accepts money from such industries because many good players in them want to weed out bad actors. He adds that if Reyes refused to accept money from anyone who has faced any controversy — including Walmart, for example — few donors would remain. (He took $7,500 from Walmart).

Crooks said Reyes also led efforts to fight groups such as opioid manufacturers. However, state legislators had criticized him for dragging his feet.

Reyes said on his campaign website that he is running to uphold the law and continue work that he says has restored public trust. “In a short amount of time, Reyes has won back confidence in his office from leaders in politics, education, business, law and, most importantly, from Utah citizens,” it said.

Reyes, 49, whose ancestry is Filipino, was appointed as attorney general after Swallow resigned in 2013. He was elected in 2014, then reelected in 2016.

John Swallow

Former Attorney General Swallow, 57, also is the target of attacks from opponents, although they say they want his past record to do most of the talking.

He resigned 11 months after taking office. Following news reports, the GOP-controlled Utah House conducted a probe that accused Swallow and his predecessor, Shurtleff, of widespread destruction of evidence, fabricated documents and efforts to peddle influence to groups such as payday lenders and skirting campaign finance law. A House report concluded he put a “For Sale” sign on the door of the office, and Swallow was facing likely impeachment.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Former Utah Attorney General John Swallow talks to the new media after he was acquitted of criminal charges on March 2, 2017.

Swallow and Shurtleff were later charged with numerous felonies. But the case against Shurtleff was dropped in 2016. Swallow was acquitted of all charges in 2017, and last year the state agreed to pay him $1.5 million for his legal expenses.

“There was nothing there,” Swallow says now. “I was acquitted and wrongfully charged.” He said he resigned because allegations were too much of a distraction for his office.

He says he is running now to pursue reform because of his experiences. “When I was on the other side as an innocent person, I saw abuses in prosecution power,” he said. “So I have a prosecution reform proposal.”

Meanwhile, his opponents are taking aim at him.

“Swallow was a fraud,” Skordas said. When asked what he thought of him in the race, he said, “Isn’t it rich,” and noted that is the first line from the song, “Send in the Clowns.” (Swallow replied, “I wouldn’t expect anything more from him. I’ve had a lot worse said about me.”)

Crooks, for Reyes, said it is laughable that Swallow is in the race and criticizing the incumbent, given his past. He urges voters to read news reports about Swallow’s time in office.

Republican Leavitt said, “There’s a big difference between not guilty and innocent.”

Swallow protested that comment. “If you understand the Constitution, you understand that every American is presumed innocent. So if I am found not guilty, I am innocent,” he said. For Leavitt to say otherwise, “means he does not trust the constitutional process.”

David Leavitt

Leavitt, the brother of former Republican Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, has served as the Utah County attorney since last year. He is also the former Juab County attorney.

“I ran for county attorney because I want to reform the criminal justice system,” he said. “I’m running for attorney general because I believe there’s more in our system that needs reform than in just one county.”

And stopping questionable donations to attorneys general “is just one of the reforms that need to occur," he said.

Leavitt lost reelection as Juab County Attorney in 2002 after getting national headlines for successfully prosecuting polygamist Tom Greene on bigamy and child rape charges. He ran for Congress in 2008 but was upstaged by Jason Chaffetz in the Republican nominating convention and Chaffetz went on to knock off incumbent Rep. Chris Cannon.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, during a news conference on July 31, 2019.

Leavitt, Swallow and Reyes are facing off in the April 25 Utah Republican Convention. If one of them manages to get 60% of the votes, they proceed directly to the Nov. 3 general election. If not, the top two face off in the June 30 primary election. None of the three attempted to gather signatures to get on the ballot.

“If people feel like John Swallow is the victim of a horrible smear campaign to get him out of office eight years ago, they should vote for him. If they feel like we don’t need to reform the criminal justice system, they should stick with Sean Reyes. If they want reform, they should vote for me,” Leavitt said.

The Democrats

Skordas and Probasco also will face off on June 25 in the Utah Democratic Convention.

Probasco notes that he was a Republican until two months ago — and previously ran for Congress and the Legislature as a Republican. But he said he became disaffected with the party because of President Donald Trump.

He is a former judge advocate for the U.S. Air Force, and also worked for years as a civilian attorney for the Air Force. He said he chose to run “because I’ve always had the spirit of public service.”

But he is seen as a minor candidate against the better known Skordas, who also ran unsuccessfully for attorney general (against Shurtleff in 2004) and for Salt Lake County district attorney.

Skordas had several high-profile and controversial clients over the years, including representing Republican Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman against charges of misuse of public money. Workman was acquitted but his representation cost Skordas support from Democrats.

Recently, he represented a police officer who arrested a nurse in an emergency room and a millennial at the center of a multimillion-dollar opioid ring. He also frequently appears on television as a legal expert.

Skordas has been a public defender, a prosecutor and private defense attorney.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Attorney Greg Skordas on Oct. 14, 2016.

He said he is running because of fundraising abuses he says he saw by Reyes and Swallow. “It just made me sick.”

He vows to be the people’s lawyer, which he said the attorney general is supposed to be. “We should be focusing on protecting consumers, the environment, and health care.”

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