Just who does Sean Reyes think he is?
It’s not altogether clear. Though serving the people of Utah as the state’s attorney general doesn’t seem to be high on his list.
Every few days seems to bring a new report of how Reyes takes time and energy — and honor — away from his duties as the state’s chief law enforcement officer to play slavish lapdog — and guard dog — to a self-appointed, freelance anti-child trafficking cop who increasingly looks like a phony, if not a sex criminal.
To run to Nevada on a wild goose chase for nonexistent election fraud.
To indulge himself in paid-for-by-others junkets to the World Cup, to Mexico, to Europe and to — legally — shoot at animals from helicopters in Texas.
The litany of accusations has gotten so long and troubling that some members of the Utah Legislature, controlled by Reyes’ fellow Republicans, are seriously considering whether having an attorney general elected by the people is a luxury we can’t afford. That we’d be better off having that worthy be an appointive member of the governor’s cabinet.
There are some good arguments for that. But to go that way would be an admission that, in this one-party state, democracy doesn’t work very well.
Which, given the last three attorneys general we elected, it might not.
It would be so much easier for everyone if Reyes would give up the job that apparently doesn’t interest him that much, resigning now or announcing that he won’t run again in 2024.
If he doesn’t do either — maybe even if he does — it would be time for the Legislature to exercise some of its constitutional oversight duties, connect the dots and, if there are grounds, launch impeachment proceedings.
When Reyes came on the scene in 2013, he looked like a breath of fresh air after the scandals associated with the just-resigned attorney general, John Swallow, and his mentor and predecessor, Mark Shurtleff. Under both of those AGs, the office took on the appearance of a pay-to-play operation, with both officials spending a lot of time consorting with shady businessmen they were, or should have been, investigating.
Criminal charges filed against both of them failed to stick. But in 2013 Swallow quit ahead of a series of reports — one from the lieutenant governor’s office and another by a special committee of the Utah House — and Reyes was appointed in his stead by then-Gov. Gary Herbert. Reyes came in promising to clean up the office and instill a new ethical culture, and he won election on his own three times since, each by large margins.
Reyes has spent a lot of his time fighting with the federal government over everything from marriage equality to the management of public lands. He likes to sign onto showboat lawsuits defending the NRA and attacking the right of the federal government to manage lands owned by the federal government.
He has also pleaded a kind of institutional poverty by farming out some of the legal work he should be doing to high-priced, out-of-state law firms, so far achieving no more in court than if he had he assigned the job to some office interns.
That, perhaps, is just inherent for a Republican office-holder in a state dominated by Republicans, running a caucus/convention system that favors red-meat Sagebrush Rebellion posturing over actual governing.
In 2020, though, Reyes went beyond reason, joining an utterly-without-merit action by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, trying to overturn the results of the presidential election. Even Herbert and then-Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox thought that was a waste of time and money.
That was on top of his uninvited visit to Nevada to poke around for election anomalies that didn’t exist. (You can just imagine the outrage Reyes and other Utah politicians would express if, say, California’s attorney general appointed himself auditor of Utah’s elections.)
More recently, Reyes finds himself paddling as fast as he can to disassociate himself from the former boss of Operation Underground Railroad, Tim Ballard, a link he once cherished and publicized at every opportunity. Reyes bragged about joining Ballard’s sting operations and was credited as a producer of a film lionizing OUR.
Now that Ballard’s reputation is tanking in the wake of various accusations of fraudulent fund-raising and sexual assault of women who thought they were helping his child rescue missions, Reyes stands accused of being Ballard’s “de facto general counsel” and of trying to intimidate witnesses and investigators.
Reyes denies all that. But even if the worst charges against Reyes don’t hold up, the fact that the elected official in charge of our state’s criminal justice system was in such thrall to an unvetted, self-styled crusader does not speak well of his judgment.
The idea floated by Utah state Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, that the attorney general become a position appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, looks good in the wake of all this (McKell is Cox’s brother-in-law). Certainly a pro, answerable to the governor, overseen by the Legislature, would be much less likely to be galavanting off to Qatar or producing movies as a side hustle.
The down side of that, and the reason that most states elect their attorneys general, is that an AG who worked for the governor would not be trusted to hold that governor to account.
Elected or appointed, filling the post of attorney general with someone who serves as an exemplar of our system of justice, rather than a self-promoting embarrassment, is handicapped, perhaps, by the low pay attached to the office. At $173,775 a year, the AG makes less than the judges he appears before, and certainly much less than he or she could make in private practice.
What Utah needs, what it deserves, as its attorney general is an accomplished lawyer who will take four or eight years away from lucrative private practice and perform an invaluable public service, not only enforcing the law but also setting an unimpeachable example for the rest of our system.
In the meantime, Reyes has proven himself adept at making friends and raising money. He doesn’t really need the job, or the pay, of attorney general of Utah.
He should let it, and us, go.