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Rolly: Swallow's acquittal more of an indictment of Utah's political culture

Published March 6, 2017 10:42 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Recent events should give Utahns pause when considering whether the state's political culture best serves them.

Former Utah Attorney General John Swallow's acquittal last week on nine criminal counts comes courtesy of a criminal-justice system doing its job.

Jurors found that prosecutors did not prove Swallow's actions amounted to crimes as defined by the law.

But the evidence that emerged during the trial and in earlier investigations, including one by the Utah House, demonstrates behavior by the state's top law enforcement officer that failed to live up to the position of trust he held.

Neither did the conduct of Swallow's immediate predecessor, Mark Shurtleff, who also faced criminal charges until the case was dismissed.

If it hadn't been for a now-convicted businessman blowing the whistle on the relationship he had with Swallow and another white-collar felon squealing on Shurtleff and Swallow, along with revelations from a tenacious press, the political futures of the state's past two attorneys general likely would have remained rosy.

Who else was minding the store?

Props to the House, under the leadership at the time of late House Speaker Becky Lockhart, for its thorough investigation after public allegations against Swallow and Shurtleff had become so troublesome, they were hard to ignore.

What, for example, was Swallow doing meeting with Jeremy Johnson discussing payments the St. George businessman made to Swallow's former boss, a payday-lending magnate, to foil a federal investigation? Swallow wasn't attorney general then, but he was Shurtleff's chief deputy and heir apparent.

And what was Swallow doing taking a family vacation on Johnson's luxurious Lake Powell houseboat?

And what were Swallow and Shurtleff doing staying at a posh Southern California resort on the dime of convicted businessman Marc Sessions Jenson?

Jurors decided those occurrences were not criminal. But they certainly suggest an attitude of entitlement leading to actions that voters shouldn't accept. What makes it easier for elected officials to behave in unacceptable ways with a feeling of impunity is a political structure that makes it difficult to unseat them — no matter how they perform in political office.

Gov. Olene Walker was dumped in the 2004 Utah Republican Convention and Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted by delegates in the 2010 GOP gathering. Why? Because they were considered not politically pure enough by party insiders, not because they did anything wrong in their jobs.

Now there are forces afoot in the Utah Legislature and in the dominant Republican Party to double down on the causes that move elected officeholders further away from accountability to the public and more under the protection of partisan cliques.

If you are a GOP candidate in just about any Utah race — outside of Salt Lake County — you are virtually certain to win the election, no matter what. But the lack of accountability becomes a reality when legislative caucuses are closed so party insiders can discuss policy directions without the scrutiny of a nosy public — or any input from the Democratic side of the aisle.

The Legislature has passed a bill removing the requirement that a political balance be considered when appointing members to certain state boards and commissions. So not only would Democrats or independents have no voice in the Legislature, they also would have no voice in numerous advisory panels that help shape policy in the executive branch.

And next year, thanks to the Legislature, state school board races will be partisan, too, meaning candidates who get through the Republican conventions, currying favor with tiny bands of GOP zealots, will be elected, because they have the Republican symbol by their name.

Such an environment can be a breeding ground for future Swallows and Shurtleffs.







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