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House speaker on Swallow: Impeachment is on the table

Published May 10, 2013 12:07 pm

Scandal • Republicans say latest allegations against the A.G. "serious," deserve attention.
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House Speaker Becky Lockhart said legislators will consider all their options in light of the latest allegations against Utah Attorney General John Swallow, including the possibility of impeachment proceedings against the state's top cop.

"Clearly," she said, "the things that are alleged are very serious and show an extreme lack of judgment."

The Provo Republican said she is certain the GOP-led Legislature's response to the scandal ensnaring Swallow — a fellow Republican who is under federal investigation — will be discussed when lawmakers gather next week for interim meetings.

"I would have to say that all options are on the table," she said. "We are becoming more and more frustrated with what we see as a lack of action or movement on the part of the feds."

If legislators decided to pursue ouster, the process would start with articles of impeachment filed by members of the House.

On Wednesday, Marc Sessions Jenson, doing time in prison for securities fraud, told The Salt Lake Tribune that Swallow and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff, made several trips to his posh Newport Beach villa in 2009.

Receipts show they charged thousands of dollars for golf outings, meals and massages to Jenson's account just months after he made a deal with the Attorney General's Office that initially kept him out of prison.

Jenson said Swallow suggested in 2009 he could help him with his legal troubles once he joined the Attorney General's Office later that year. The inmate also said Swallow offered to assist Jenson's plans to develop a $3.5 billion ski and golf resort in Beaver County in exchange for a $1.5 million share in the development.

And, Jenson said, Shurtleff pressed Jenson to help with campaign fundraising and pitched a deal for the businessman to buy $250,000 worth of a book Shurtleff had written.

Shurtleff dismissed Jenson's claims as lies. Swallow, in a written response from his office, did not specifically deny the allegations but noted that Swallow was a private citizen during his interactions with Jenson and not in the Attorney General's Office.

Jenson's allegations come after earlier accusations from indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson that Swallow helped arrange payments to try to help him avert a federal investigation of his business.

And three Utah businessmen said that Swallow, when he was a Shurtleff fundraiser, suggested they would have protection in the Attorney General's Office if they contributed to Shurtleff's campaign.

In addition, a former head of the state's Division of Consumer Protection filed an ethics complaint with the bar last week against Swallow over a conversation he had with a businessman facing a $400,000 fine, alleging it violated Swallow's duty to represent the agency.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said Jenson's allegations are surprising, even considering everything Swallow had been accused of.

"The fact that they really stoop to that level, that just shocks me," he said. "These are public servants … and to be engaging in that kind of activity, no matter what your standard is, just goes beyond the bounds of decency. It's just breathtakingly brazen."

Dabakis urged the governor to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate if state laws were broken. If he does not, Dabakis, who is also a state senator, said the Legislature should use its subpoena power to investigate Swallow.

Brigham Young University political scientist Kelly Patterson said Swallow, who took office in January, runs the risk of having his public and political support eroded by the waves of negative stories coming out about his conduct.

"It's almost like a shotgun blast that is poking holes in his credibility, and credibility is really about the only capital a politician has," Patterson said. "At some point, the politician's standing in the public becomes so imperiled that the party has to act in some fashion so as not to damage its brand. When that time comes is really still kind of an open question."

In late January, amid the initial set of allegations, a poll by BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy found nearly 60 percent of Utahns who had heard of the accusations believed Swallow had behaved unethically, if not illegally.

Swallow's support fell even more when the center asked the same question in March, Patterson said. Eighty-three percent of those surveyed had heard of the allegations. Of those, 32 percent believed Swallow had broken the law, 62 percent said he had acted unethically, and 7 percent responded he had done nothing wrong.

Nearly 8 in 10 (78 percent) said Swallow should resign.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, anticipates his chamber will be patient and let the federal probe run its course.

The new allegations are serious, he said, but Jenson "is not the most reputable guy."

"Until we get this settled, it's obviously not a great situation for the [Attorney General's] Office," Niederhauser said. "We were hoping a lot of this stuff would get settled and everyone could move on. I guess we're kind of wondering what else is out there. What are the investigators going to come back with? I think there's still some question of that."

gehrke@sltrib.comTwitter: @RobertGehrke






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