Sean Reyes’ friendship with Tim Ballard has Utah lawmakers weighing major changes for A.G.’s office

The Legislature is considering a variety of changes, including asking voters whether the position of attorney general should be appointed by the governor rather than elected.

Utah lawmakers frustrated by Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes’ long support of embattled activist Tim Ballard have reinvigorated discussions on how the state chooses its top law enforcement officer.

“I think there’s huge frustration with Sean Reyes on Capitol Hill right now,” Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said Thursday in an interview. “Being the attorney general is not a high priority for him and people are frustrated.”

Ballard, an anti-human-trafficking activist and founder of the nonprofit Operation Underground Railroad, has been accused in two lawsuits of sexual assault and other misconduct. For nearly a decade, Reyes has been one of Ballard’s most vocal and high profile supporters. McKell sent an email to his constituents Wednesday night saying he had “become increasingly concerned with the attorney general’s office and its actions.”

The Legislature is considering a variety of changes, McKell said, and is seeking feedback from voters on whether the position of attorney general should be appointed by the governor, with consent of the Utah Senate, rather than elected.

“We’ve got to get to the point where being the attorney general is the number one priority … and it’s clearly not for Sean Reyes,” McKell said. The allegations against Ballard are the latest frustration with Reyes for lawmakers, he said, “but it’s been trickling for a while.” McKell, who is also an attorney, said he is not interested in the job, but would like to see the office function properly.

In a statement Thursday, the attorney general’s office said that having an elected officeholder guarantees the independence of the position.

“There is a reason 43 states elect an attorney general who can champion the rights of the People and defend their liberties without the permission of the governor, legislature or any other official,” the statement read. “Appointed [attorneys general] can’t exercise independent discretion or decision making and they become just an extension of the governor or whomever appoints them. While the [attorney general] looks to collaborate with other officeholders, he or she needs the autonomy to be responsive to the People of the State and stand up for them without interference.”

Changing how the attorney general is chosen is not the only action lawmakers are considering. According to several legislators, other options on the table include requesting audits of the attorney general’s office, including how donations from OUR were used, and potentially recruiting a legitimate candidate to run against Reyes when he is up for election in 2024. They asked that their names not be used because the confidential discussions occurred while lawmakers considered their oversight options.

“There should be an audit of the entire relationship with the attorney general’s office, including any financial interminglings,” one lawmaker said.

In the past, Reyes has spoken at fundraisers; participated in an OUR operation in Colombia; posted numerous images of himself alongside Ballard at various events; appeared in a film promoting Ballard’s anti-trafficking work; and, until recently, touted himself as an associate producer on “Sound of Freedom,” the fictionalized film based on Ballard’s story.

Reyes’ office told The Salt Lake Tribune his office also received nearly $1 million in grants from Operation Underground Railroad and its backers, intended to support the office’s anti-trafficking work.

A pair of lawsuits filed by seven individuals accusing Ballard of sexual misconduct highlight OUR founder’s friendship with the attorney general. On Wednesday, Alan Mortensen, who is representing the seven plaintiffs accusing Ballard of sexual assault and financial misconduct, said Reyes’ endorsements of Ballard and OUR gave credibility in the eyes of donors. He also said the relationship warrants a more extensive investigation.

Reyes, for his part, has said he did not see any of the wrongdoing Ballard is now being accused of committing.

In a lengthy statement Wednesday, the attorney general’s office said that if Reyes knew of such behavior at the time, “he would not have allowed use of his name and would have strongly condemned such actions.”

“He only observed conduct that was positive, productive and legal in his interactions with OUR and Mr. Ballard,” the statement read. “He does not have any personal knowledge of what happened between Mr. Ballard and the plaintiffs as articulated in the [lawsuit].”

The statement also insists that “contrary to certain reporting, there was never a criminal investigation” into Reyes or his office. Democrats also share the frustration with the situation in the attorney general’s office.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes on Tuesday.

“Our [attorney general] worked for years to support and prop up this organization. He did so using his elected position,” Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, a former prosecutor for Murray City, said on X. “There was no way to be that involved in an organization and be unaware of the massive fraud they were committing.”

At a news conference Tuesday, after being pressed by reporters to comment on the growing litany of allegations against his friend, Reyes said the legal claims against Ballard “are serious and ought to be taken seriously.”

Last month, Reyes said he was ‘shocked and deeply saddened’ by allegations against Ballard, adding that he would not support Ballard in his U.S. Senate bid.

This is not the first time Reyes’ relationships have caused him problems.

Reyes promoted a surveillance program from a company called Banjo after befriending the head of the company, Damien Patton. His office suspended a $21 million contract with the company after it was revealed Patton once had ties to white supremacist organizations. At the time, Reyes said he didn’t know of Patton’s past.

In 2021, Reyes flew to Wisconsin to attend a Green Bay Packers game and receive an award from the National Child Identification Program, which provides parents with a card designed to help identify their children in case of a kidnapping. The state committed $1.8 million of taxpayer money to the program, even though, The Texas Tribune reported, similar cards are available for free from other nonprofit and government entities and it is unclear if the cards actually help recover kids.

And he delivered a speech at a party for Washakie Renewable Energy and took nearly $51,000 in donations from the company. Later, federal agents raided the company and charged the company, which had ties to the Kingston polygamous clan, with defrauding taxpayers out of $511 million in renewable tax credits. Reyes’ campaign manager said they froze the campaign donations pending the outcome of a trial, but after a guilty verdict was returned said the money had been spent.

If a proposal is brought forward to have the attorney general appointed, as McKell suggests, it would not be the first time the idea was floated. In 2013, when then-Attorney General John Swallow was under investigation, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, suggested having the governor appoint the position, but it did not gain any traction.

Weiler said not much has changed since then.

“I expressed some grave concerns about the attorney general position in 2013 when I sponsored some legislation to make the position appointed, rather than elected, and I share those same concerns today,” he said.

However, the ghosts of the Swallow scandal still loom large over the decision making. The Legislature spent several million dollars investigating alleged misconduct and both he and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff, were charged with multiple felonies. But the charges were dropped in Shurtleff’s case and Swallow was acquitted at trial.

It was just three years ago that the state finally paid $2.1 million to settle Swallow’s and Shurtleff’s respective legal bills.