Utah’s Office of the Attorney General has a storied past. Actually, it’s more a nightmare than a story. The Shurtleff/Swallow saga, which headlined Utah papers for more than two years, finished last year with an anticlimactic thud.
The hope after Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow was that, as attorney general, Sean Reyes would focus on representing the state and its agencies in court, enforcing Utah laws and improving the office’s transparency and ethics policies.
Those hopes have been slowly crushed over the last three years.
First, a little transparency myself. I ran for the vacant attorney general position after Swallow resigned. I obviously did not win.
The attorney general is the state’s primary legal advisor. Instead of advising on legal matters, though, it looks like Reyes is single-handedly solving the problem of international human trafficking. There is growing frustration, especially among legislators, about what exactly Reyes has accomplished.
Human trafficking is, no doubt, an important issue. And the non-profit Reyes frequently touts, Operation Underground Railroad, is doing great work. But how is this role appropriate for a state attorney general?
What is dishearteningly ironic is the fact that the cause of human trafficking did not even start with Reyes’s administration. Mark Shurtleff spent time advocating against trafficking in 2012.
The frustration and exasperation come from the feeling that Reyes is campaigning for his next office.
I recently wrote a tweet about whether Reyes realizes his constituents are weary of his fascination with the human trafficking issue.
The office pushed back with details of activities the AG has been busy with lately, including the Opioid Task Force, the DEA 360 program and the SafeUT electronic application.
Reyes and his office did set up the Opioid Task Force with federal Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent in Charge Brian Besser. But the task force hasn’t actually done anything yet. House Speaker Greg Hughes recently announced, in partnership with Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, that Salt Lake County would be suing pharmaceutical companies to pursue damages caused by opioid addiction. Hughes expressed his hope that Reyes would join Salt Lake County’s efforts on behalf of the state.
You know communication has broken down when the House Speaker is asking the AG to do something through the media.
The DEA 360 program is another example of Reyes taking more credit than he deserves. Early last year then-Sheriff Jim Winder and Besser approached Hughes concerning issues relating to the increasing homeless population. They asked Hughes to apply for the DEA 360 federal program on behalf of Utah. Aside from a letter of support, the AG’s office did not play a primary role in procuring funds for the program.
Similarly, the SafeUT app, which is a suicide-prevention hotline for state teenagers, originated with the legislative policy advisor under former AG Swallow, who worked with Sen. Dan Thatcher to push it through the Legislature.
Where are Reyes’s ideas?
Even the infamous special election memo, wherein Reyes was caught between two clients – the governor and the Legislature, was an opportunity to stand up and lead. His ethical obligation to the governor as his client was real, and he was right to safeguard that relationship. But he was also obligated by statute to provide an opinion to the Legislature when asked.
The AG could have created an ethical wall within the AG’s office. Or, he could have decided to disclose the draft memo, as the State Records Committee unanimously ruled, with the understanding that the committee’s decision provided cover, in conjunction with the rules of professional conduct that allowed him to reveal a client’s information “to comply with other law.” Or, Reyes could have persuaded the executive branch to waive any conflict it might have had in the pursuit of transparency and public disclosure.
Voters want to see elected officials make hard choices.
Instead of lobbying against human trafficking around the world, Reyes should be working on more important issues here in Utah.
He could be a leader on the DACA issue.
He could sue Big Pharma, like Hughes wants him to.
He could help clear up uncertainties regarding CBD and marijuana enforcement.
Or, even better, the AG could put his head down and get to work fulfilling his lengthy list of statutory responsibilities, including creating, at the very least, “an annual performance report,” which should be posted on the website before the end of each calendar year. When asked, the AG’s office said it was “nearly complete,” and would be submitted prior to the session.
The people of Utah will re-elect an attorney general who is minding the shop.
Michelle Quist is an editorial writer for the Salt Lake Tribune who hopes good things for the attorney general and is glad she isn’t in his seat.