Utah lawmaker launches effort to impeach Attorney General Sean Reyes

Rep. Andrew Stoddard says he wants to investigate the attorney general’s “work to undermine our election process.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) This June 2, 2020, file photo shows Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes during a primary election debate at the studios of KUED at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. A Democratic lawmaker has filed a resolution of impeachment against Reyes accusing him of using his office for political purposes — namely to challenge the presidential election.

A Democratic state lawmaker is launching an impeachment probe targeting Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes over his ties to a GOP attorneys general association — an organization that encouraged people to rally at the U.S. Capitol ahead of the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt.

Rep. Andrew Stoddard is moving forward with the effort to impeach Reyes because of the attorney general’s “work to undermine our election process and results, and his regular failure to represent his client, the state.” He also wrote that he wanted more information about how the Republican Attorneys General Association was involved in “the domestic terror attack on our Nation’s Capitol.”

“This is not a move I am taking lightly,” Stoddard, a Murray city prosecutor, wrote in a statement posted to Twitter on Tuesday. “And in spite of assumptions that this is a partisan or political move, it is not.”

Stoddard added that the state law leaves legislators few options when it comes to investigating elected officials in other branches, forcing them to choose between making public records requests or exploring impeachment.

“I know it sounds extreme, but this is really the only way I have to get information. We don’t have any middle ground when it comes to investigation,” he said in an interview.

Reyes called the impeachment resolution a “drastic measure” and suggested that Stoddard could’ve satisfied his curiosity without resorting to such an extreme step.

“If I had questions regarding his bill, I wouldn’t send a subpoena, I’d make an appointment with him,” Reyes said in a statement. “During this session, my team has helped Rep. Stoddard with his criminal justice bills but I don’t believe he has ever asked to meet with me to discuss his concerns. My door is always open.”

Stoddard said he decided to take the impeachment route because of the frustrations he encountered when trying to get information about the no-bid contracts handed out by the state during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawmaker has no illusions that his proposal will gain any traction in the GOP-controlled Legislature, but said he’s not just pulling a political stunt.

“The good of the state outweighs any backlash I may face politically,” he said. “If this never gets out [of the House Rules Committee for public debate] then it never gets out. But, at least opening it allows me to do some investigating and hopefully find out more information.”

Utah law permits House representatives to file impeachment resolutions against elected leaders for “high crimes, misdemeanors or malfeasance in office,” but the measures need a two-thirds majority for passage. That outcome here is highly improbable, given the GOP supermajority in the state Legislature and Utah’s rare use of impeachment powers.

And House Speaker Brad Wilson’s response to the impeachment proposal suggested it was dead on arrival.

“Impeachment is a loaded word that will certainly grab headlines, but I have not seen any evidence that the attorney general’s actions meet the threshold set for us to pursue that course of action,” the Kaysville Republican said. “Spending valuable time with prolonged debate on the matter would hinder our ability to handle the more pressing matters at hand.”

Republicans in the state Senate also pushed back hard against Stoddard’s move to impeach.

“I’m extremely disappointed. That’s kind of a Washington, D.C., effort of divisive politics,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton. “I would hope that doesn’t come to Utah. I am really disappointed in the resolution, and I hope it doesn’t go anywhere because I just don’t believe that’s productive in Utah. We’re better than that and I hope we stay better than that.”

“I just don’t want to see this happening and I would much prefer to see the good representative withdraw his resolution,” added Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City.

“My only response would be one or two really short words, and they probably shouldn’t be printed,” quipped Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton.

However, state Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, voiced his support for Stoddard’s impeachment resolution Tuesday, tweeting that “we need ethics in the AG’s office.”

The Rule of Law Defense Fund — the Republican Attorneys General Association policy arm that Reyes recently led — has faced criticism for sending out a robocall urging people to attend the Jan. 6 rally that turned into a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol building.

The association’s executive director resigned amid the backlash against the calls, which did not advocate violence or invading the Capitol but did say the group hoped “patriots like you will join us to continue to fight to protect the integrity of our elections.”

Reyes, the defense fund’s former chairman and a recipient of big campaign donations from the Republican Attorneys General Association, has distanced himself from the recorded messages and said he was not involved in organizing the rally. He reiterated those assertions Tuesday and denounced the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, while also condemning “the equally tragic riots, looting, burning, violence and loss of life all summer long in cities across our nation.”

Many of Trump’s supporters have tried to equate the violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol with unrest related to last year’s demonstrations for racial justice — often exaggerating the violence and property damage that occurred during some of these protests, the New York Times has reported.

In announcing the impeachment resolution, Stoddard also took aim at Reyes’ efforts to challenge the results of the presidential election, including the attorney general’s move to join a lawsuit to overturn former President Donald Trump’s loss in four battleground states. The Supreme Court tossed out the legal challenge, and Reyes’ participation in the suit drew condemnation from top Republicans in Utah.

Then-Gov Gary Herbert and now-Gov. Spencer Cox criticized Reyes for an “unwise” use of taxpayer resources and said they’d been caught off guard when the attorney general announced he wanted in on the election challenge. Herbert argued it was inappropriate for Utah to get involved in another state’s elections, while Cox said there was no evidence of widespread irregularities in the presidential contest.

Shortly after the November election, Reyes also took time off from his official position to assist Trump’s team in contesting the outcome and traveled to Nevada to investigate alleged voting problems in the state. Though Utah’s attorney general said he’d seen “voting irregularities,” no evidence of widespread fraud ever emerged.

“Utah’s Attorney General, Sean Reyes, has worked shamelessly over the past few months to undermine our country’s election results,” Stoddard wrote in a statement released Tuesday morning. “As an attorney and a public officer, he has violated his duty to the State.”

Reyes, however, maintains that he was acting in the public interest by supporting Trump’s failed attempt to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory and that the Supreme Court challenge aimed to answer a “critical constitutional question” on separation of powers.

“I understand the Supreme Court is hesitant to address even important constitutional issues like this amid political controversy. Nevertheless, it is a question that remains and needs to be answered before the next election cycle,” he said. “As Attorney General, I have to defend state election laws and advise the executive branch but can’t do so if the force of those laws is in question.”