Opinion: We can fix the Utah Attorney General’s Office

Utah deserves an attorney general with no partisan agenda, no side hustles and no conflicts of interest.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The office of the Utah Attorney General at the Capitol, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

All is not right in the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

A recent Salt Lake Tribune article bemoaned the scandals surrounding Utah’s last three attorneys general, including current Attorney General Sean Reyes. The headline asked, “Is there a solution?”

There is a solution: Treat the attorney general less like a politician and more — in certain critical ways — like a judge. When was the last time you heard about a Utah judge embroiled in scandal?

A run of three consecutive troubled attorneys general — whose administrations span 24 years — suggests that merely hoping future attorneys general will avoid scandal-traps might be naive. It’s time our Legislature enacted mandatory standards to ensure they do. I propose four.

Make the office nonpartisan.

Democrats and Republicans both run organizations dedicated to electing state attorneys general of their party. The Republican group has funneled nearly $450,000 into Attorney General Reyes’ campaign chest since 2014.

Why? With limited exceptions, the attorney general’s role is not to make policy, but to enforce laws enacted by the political branches. There is no place for politics in law enforcement.

So let’s wall off the attorney general from all partisan activity. Candidates should run on non-partisan ballots. Once in office, they should be barred from speaking to political groups, endorsing political candidates and making contributions to or receiving contributions from political groups or candidates.

We hold judges to this standard, and for a good reason: People question the independence and impartiality of judges who appear subject to political influence. The same is true of the attorney general.

Prohibit gifts and favors.

The law should prohibit the attorney general from receiving gifts, favors or campaign contributions from anyone in litigation with, under investigation by or having business before the Attorney General’s Office. Yes, that’s a wide swath.

But gifts and favors come with strings. They create structural conflicts of interest, tempting an attorney general to accommodate their patron at the expense of their client, the people of Utah.

Judges may not accept gifts that would appear to a reasonable person to undermine the judge’s independence, integrity or impartiality. We should hold the state’s minister of justice to the same standard.

Limit outside involvement.

Assistant attorneys general, county attorneys and judges are all barred from outside legal practice. The attorney general should be, too. But that’s not enough, as recent events have shown. Like judges, attorneys general should be barred from involvement with business organizations as well.

The Tribune has documented Attorney General Reyes’ ties with Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) and its founder, Tim Ballard. For example, Reyes rode on an OUR parade entry, attended OUR fund-raising galas, appeared in an OUR film and claimed an associate producer credit for an OUR-inspired feature film.

None of this unseemly (but apparently legal) conduct falls within the attorney general’s job description. But it’s worse than that: Reyes himself has acknowledged that his association with OUR “contributed to an environment that made [women accusing Ballard of sexual assault] feel powerless and without a voice to fight back for many years.”

Because attorneys general, like judges, wield great power, their extracurricular conduct can erode trust in the administration of justice. It should stop.

Make the attorney general’s travel calendar public.

Media attorney David Reymann is seeking access to Attorney General Reyes’ official calendar. Reymann reasons that the public has a right to know where the attorney general was performing his job or if “he [was] doing his job at all.”

Reymann is right.

The Attorney General’s Office has responded that Utah law does not permit access to the attorney general’s official calendar, and, therefore, “the fix is legislative.”

If a legislative fix is indeed required, the Legislature should provide it. True, some of what the attorney general does is sensitive — but no more sensitive than what the president does, and the president’s public schedule is available in considerable detail.

Holding our attorney general to these standards will transform the office. It will cease to attract lawyers with political ambitions. Political groups will stop funding campaigns. And members of the donor class will have little reason to invest in candidates.

As a result, attorney general elections will be low-budget and low-profile. And the winning candidate will stick to business at the office rather than becoming a quasi-celebrity or political big shot. With any luck, most Utahns will not even know the attorney general’s name.

Utah deserves an attorney general with no partisan agenda, no side hustles, no conflicts of interest; a public servant with no reason to hide their comings and goings; a minister of justice laser-focused on doing the people’s legal business and nothing else.

Fred Voros

Fred Voros, was an assistant attorney general for 18 years under three attorneys general: Paul Van Dam, Jan Graham and Mark Shurtleff. He left the AG’s Office to become a judge on the Utah Court of Appeals, where he served for eight years. He now practices law at Zimmerman Booher in Salt Lake City.

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