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Legislature likely to try to prevent future Swallow scandals

Published January 27, 2014 11:21 am

The yearlong public spectacle of the A.G.'s alleged corruption may trigger changes.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

From just outside the chambers where the House and Senate will gather Monday to commence the 2014 legislative session, a person can look down the stairs, across the Rotunda and see the office of the Utah attorney general.

It was an office which, House investigators said, bore a "For Sale" sign under former Attorney General John Swallow. They pointed to a pay-to-play pattern of special access and favors for big donors and wealthy friends.

In the aftermath of the scandal that drove Swallow from office and shook Utah politics, lawmakers said it is reasonable to expect a careful look at possible shortcomings in Utah's ethics laws and how to stave off future scandals.

"There is an appetite for looking at what happened, how it happened and ways we can be more vigilant in making sure it doesn't happen again," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. "But if there are things that happened that were already illegal, we don't need another bill. We don't need to pass another law making something illegal that already is."

Numerous bills are being proposed dealing in one way or another with fallout from the attorney general scandal — ranging from beefing up reporting requirements to amending the Utah Constitution to change the way the attorney general is chosen.

"A lot of what the argument has been in the past is: 'This isn't necessary, it's not a problem,' " said Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, a member of the House committee that investigated Swallow. "But I think what this scenario has presented us with is, yes, it can happen. It is a problem. … And I think our constituents expect us to take something that we've learned from this."

Violations • A special counsel hired by the lieutenant governor reported in November that Swallow broke five state campaign laws. Earlier this month, the counsel made a series of recommendations aimed at making it more difficult for future candidates to hide their business interests and income on conflict-of-interest forms.

One suggestion stemmed from Swallow's payment of $450,000 to his campaign consultant, with little explanation of what the expenditure was for.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, was originally working on legislation that would require candidates to itemize campaign expenses charged on their credit cards — rather than just reporting a payment to Visa or American Express, as was done for an aggregate $280,000 by campaigns in 2012 — and expanded her bill to cover payments to campaign consultants.

"It's all about transparency, so people know how the money is being spent," Arent said. "I've worked on these issues a long time. I've done ethics bills, I've done campaign finance laws for over a decade and I certainly see a heightened interest."

Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, seeks to clarify the process for handling election complaints. The bill would refine the process and, most notably, make it more difficult for the lieutenant governor to invalidate an election, which is now the only remedy available for election violations.

Dayton's bill would require the lieutenant governor to show the violation likely changed the outcome of the election to void the contest.

In the infancy of the Swallow scandal last year, Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, crafted a bill imposing limitations on campaign contributions, calling it his GUI bill, or "Governing Under the Influence."

"I was drawing an analogy with other hazardous behaviors in society," he said, "so we set a limit and say we'll tolerate it below this limit" but not above it.

Limits • A poll conducted for The Salt Lake Tribune found that 69 percent of Utahns favor a limitation on campaign contributions. Twenty-two percent opposed such caps. The idea of limiting campaign money enjoyed broad support across party lines, with about two-thirds of Republicans and unaffiliated voters supporting the restrictions, along with 86 percent of Democrats.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, will also once again sponsor a bill to cap contributions. King caps donations in statewide races at $10,000 and $5,000 for others. Powell's bill would limit donations to $10,000 in all campaigns. King argues that money in politics is a corrupting influence, but that is especially true when talking of contributions of tens of thousands of dollars.

"John Swallow and [his predecessor] Mark Shurtleff are Exhibit A," King said. "I don't think they would have behaved the same way if we'd had campaign-contribution limits."

Without limits, King said Shurtleff and Swallow went to particular industries — payday lenders and online marketers, primarily — and solicited huge amounts of money.

"I don't pretend this is a silver bullet, but I do think it would be helpful," King said. "Transparency and disclosure are good, and I'm glad we do it, but alone I don't think they are enough to stem the corruption — and I don't think it's too strong a word for it — that I think we saw with John Swallow."

On Friday, Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, released his own ethics bill, which includes contribution caps of $5,000 for statewide races and $2,500 on other races, as well as several other reforms. He seeks to tighten up reporting by requiring candidates to report donations within three days — as opposed to the current 30-day window. He would make it a class B misdemeanor to solicit, receive or give a contribution to a legislator at the Capitol or the surrounding complex.

And it would require any person, corporation or nonprofit making an expenditure in an election to report the spending. That is an attempt to get at so-called "dark money," which flows through nonprofits without any reporting requirements.

In Swallow's case, his consultant Jason Powers set up nonprofits that brought in more than $450,000, most of it from payday lenders. He then funneled the money through other PACs and used it to run scathing attacks on Swallow's opponent, Sean Reyes, and former Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, who had sponsored legislation the payday lenders opposed. None of the expenditures had to be reported and the Swallow campaign denied any involvement.

Yet to come • There's another shoe yet to drop: The House Special Investigative Committee that spent months investigating Swallow's actions has yet to issue its recommendations on changes to state law.

Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, chairman of the bipartisan panel, said there is a list of items that arose during the course of the investigation, and he hopes to have a committee meeting to discuss those in the next few weeks.

"In a broad sense, we will look at: Are the laws we currently have adequate? Do they highlight some problems?" Dunnigan said. "It's also very possible that we'll determine that some additional clarification of existing laws is in order, including maybe laws in additional areas we haven't fully addressed in the past."

Those recommendations, he said, could be minor tweaks or fine-tuning, or they could be "substantive change" to existing laws.

"There is an appetite — I've heard from a number of legislators — for some reform," Dunnigan said. "But also little appetite to put a bunch of new laws in place to show we did something. I think there's a genuine interest to see if we can't improve the system."

Perhaps the most fundamental, structural change to how the attorney general operates is coming from Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who is proposing an amendment to the Utah Constitution to make it an appointive, rather than elective, office.

"Unlike the governor and the Legislature, the attorney general gets to decide who gets prosecuted and who gets a pass," Weiler said recently. "It's a special power. And when you commingle that power with fundraising, it can yield some pretty unhealthy results, which is what we've seen unfold over the past year."

The poll conducted for The Tribune earlier this month, however, found that 55 percent of Utahns want the post to remain an elective position.


Twitter: @RobertGehrke —

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