Sim Gill as Utah’s top federal prosecutor? These candidates are less divisive, Robert Gehrke says

The Salt Lake County district attorney has been a lightning rod in the police-reform debate.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill speaks at a news conference at Salt Lake County District Attorney's building on Monday, March 1, 2021.

Over the past two years, Sim Gill has managed to become one of the most polarizing politicians currently in office.

Progressive activists against police violence gnash their teeth over the perceived unwillingness to be tough on police shootings and violence while, at the same time, slapping protesters with shockingly harsh charges — charges that a special prosecutor later cut way back.

Representatives of the police union, meantime, assert the opposite — that Gill’s relationship with police officers is so adversarial that cops are instructed not to cooperate with his investigations.

So you can imagine that neither of our groups will be happy if Gill becomes the next U.S. attorney for Utah. Yet that remains a distinct possibility.

A handful of well-connected people in Utah’s legal and political circles have mentioned Gill’s name as potential nominee by the Biden administration — along with several others. Some have even referred to him as a front-runner.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Gill has some things going for him. He’s been a prosecutor for 25 years, has been elected three times and runs the office that handles criminal and civil cases for the largest county in the state. His office has pushed for a host of policy reforms — with varying success — on police use of force, criminal justice, bail, hate crimes, medical marijuana and expungements of criminal records.

He also is of Indian descent, and several folks I talked to say the White House wants to appoint a minority or a female — or both — for the position.

But, as I mentioned, he has a list of detractors that seems to have grown longer in the past 18 months.

“Nobody should think that Sim would be a good choice for U.S. attorney,” Ian Adams, director of the Fraternal Order of Police, told me last week.

The police union has clashed regularly with Gill and his office, and Adams believes the post needs someone who can build relationships with the various state and federal agencies, something Gill could not do.

“Sim, through his own actions,” Adams said, “has systematically ruined relationships between his office and the rest of the criminal justice system and other stakeholders over the last decade.”

During his latest campaign, Gill’s opponent, Nathan Evershed, who worked for the district attorney, focused much of his criticism on the high turnover among lawyers in the office.

Gill wouldn’t comment on whether he’s being considered for the post, nor would several others in the mix. (Talking publicly about such things is generally seen as the perfect way to blow one’s chances.)

In the past, though, Gill has insisted that making the hard decisions sometimes means making enemies, but he has done what he thinks is right and advocated for changes to make the law more just.

FILE - In this July 10, 2020, file photo, District Attorney Sim Gill inspects the damage to the district attorney's office in Salt Lake City. Some Black Lives Matter protesters in Utah could face up to life in prison if they're convicted of splashing red paint and smashing windows during a protest, a potential punishment that stands out among demonstrators arrested around the country and one that critics say doesn't fit the alleged crime. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

The biggest obstacle Gill would have to overcome is Sen. Mike Lee. Traditionally the home-state senators are consulted by the White House about the pick. I’m told both Lee and Sen. Mitt Romney will be submitting recommendations for the post soon and after a nominee is announced, the senators can support or oppose the choice.

Lee also holds a post on the Senate Judiciary Committee, giving him more leverage than Romney over the selection. Lee, of course, is a stalwart Republican who has a history of resisting and at times blocking nominees with whom he disagrees.

So if Gill can’t get Lee on board, there are a handful of others, as I said, who have been mentioned as contenders for the post. Here’s a look at a few:

Andrea Martinez has been filling the post on an interim basis since early March. She is the third woman to hold the post and the first Latina. Martinez has spent a decade in the office, prosecuting drug trafficking, federal firearms and child exploitation cases, among others. She could be an easy consensus pick for the Biden White House, less controversial than Gill and more likely to get the support of Lee and Romney.

Adams said his organization has written letters of support for two others in the office — Stephen Nelson, a prosecutor in the violent crime section, and Stewart Young, who handles violent crime and public corruption cases. Karen Fojtik, deputy chief of the office’s white-collar crime section, was also mentioned as a possible pick.

• Margaret Plane is the former Salt Lake City attorney, now holding the same post in Park City. I was a huge fan of Plane’s when she was nominated for the Utah Court of Appeals and disappointed when the Senate refused to even give her a hearing. Plane has run a large legal office and brings more experience on the civil side of the legal process — something that too often gets glossed over.

(Photo courtesy of Salt Lake City) Margaret Plane, who was the Salt Lake City attorney under Mayor Ralph Becker.

• Kim Cordova has experience both as a prosecutor and defense attorney and most recently was the director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice under then-Gov. Gary Herbert, giving her both experience on the policy side and trust in Republican circles. Cordova was recently a finalist for a 3rd District judgeship.

• Greg Skordas, like Cordova, has worked both as a defense attorney and prosecutor and last year was the Democratic nominee for Utah attorney general. If the White House is serious about leaning toward a female and/or minority in the post, it’s unlikely that Skordas will get the pick.

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