Utah attorney general’s office largely untouched as lawmakers sidestep reforms

After controversy in the fall, talk of heightened transparency and changing the way an A.G. is chosen didn’t move, but the Legislature made official calendars secret.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is seen at the Capitol on Jan. 16, 2024. Reform legislation for the attorney general's office largely stalled during the recent session.

Last fall, when Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes was under scrutiny for his relationship with Operation Underground Railroad founder Tim Ballard, his frequent travel and the management of his nonprofit, lawmakers were making noise about the need for more transparency and tighter oversight of the office.

One legislator, Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, even wanted to pass a constitutional amendment to have the attorney general appointed, rather than elected, to avoid conflicts of interest that can arise when the state’s top legal officer has to raise campaign cash from donors.

As the 45-day legislative session concluded last week, however, little was done to change the status quo for the attorney general or other public officials. If anything, lawmakers made public transparency more challenging.

Potential remains for change in the future. An investigation legislators sought of the culture, travel policy and potential conflicts in the office is ongoing, with the legislative auditors requesting and receiving a slew of documents.

That audit should be completed sometime in the fall.

County attorneys and the Salt Lake County district attorney have been barred from doing legal work outside their government jobs. HB380, sponsored by Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, would extend that ban to the state’s attorney general.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes during the start of 2024 legislative session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. Attorneys general can now keep future calendars hidden from the public.

“This is a good policy in the legal world. It’s really easy for us to create conflicts,” Stoddard, who is a lawyer, said during debate on the measure. He said he spoke with other lawyers in the attorney general’s office about it and “they already thought there was a prohibition.”

It cleared the House and Senate unanimously and await’s Gov. Spencer Cox’s signature.

The measure stands out as the rare example of legislation touching on the attorney general that made it through the legislative process.

For example, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Lehi, had introduced HB545, which would have required the attorney general, state auditor and state treasurer to disclose any out-of-state travel they take using campaign funds or taxpayer money — beyond the normal disclosure of such expenditures.

The disclosure would have included anyone who traveled with the officers, whom they met with and the purpose of the out-of-state travel. It would not have applied to legislators or the governor.

The bill never went anywhere. Brammer, who is the House Rules chair, never sent it to a committee for a hearing.

The measure was not explicitly targeted at Reyes, although The Salt Lake Tribune reported last fall that he had taken some 30 trips to Europe, Mexico and across the United States over a two-year span, paid for with campaign funds. It included trips in 2023 and 2022 to Texas to shoot feral hogs from helicopters, which the campaign said was a fundraising trip.

He also took a trip to watch a World Cup soccer match in 2022 that was paid for by the government of Qatar.

The Tribune had filed an open records request for Reyes’ calendar to get a fuller picture of Reyes’ travel habits. The office refused to release the record. A judge ruled earlier this month in a similar case that official calendars are public records. That same day, the Legislature adopted SB240, sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, which states that, going forward, the public and media cannot have access to the calendars of any public official.

The bill is not retroactive, so it remains to be seen if it will have any impact on gaining access to Reyes’ calendar. In the future, though, officials’ calendars will be off-limits.

“It is a bit hypocritical,” said Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Millcreek, “that we haven’t taken his behavior a bit more seriously and moved forward with legislative action beyond what was done [in the Stoddard bill].”

When it comes to potential changes in the future, McKell said, “I still need to see the legislative audit.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork, chats with Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, at the Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.

The GOP lawmaker remains interested in changing the Utah Constitution to give the governor the power to appoint the attorney general — Cox, the current governor, is McKell’s brother-in-law — but he said there wasn’t any urgency to get it done in this session.

If it had passed this year, it would have been put on the ballot in November, the same time voters will pick a replacement for Reyes, who is not seeking reelection. So even if voters had approved it, the change would not take effect until January 2029, at the earliest.

“I don’t like the structure,” McKell said. There are too many opportunities for conflicts of interest when the attorney general is elected, he said. “It raises ethical concerns.”

When appointing the attorney general was discussed before, it was studied for several years — and still didn’t gain traction with legislators. McKell said he wants to take the time to build support among legislators and the public, something he said would be easier if it is not in an election year.

“The discussion,” he said, “is going to continue.”

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