U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will be in Utah next month to deliver the keynote speech for the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission's annual lunch.
"It's a wonderful thing for the state to have someone of his caliber come out," said commission Chairman Roderic Land.
But Holder's visit is not likely to pass without some controversy. He has been at the middle of Capitol Hill inquiries into the "Operation Fast and Furious" gun-smuggling border scandal, and dozens of members of Congress have demanded his resignation.
State Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, a congressional candidate and a member of the Martin Luther King Commission, is concerned someone so controversial was invited to speak and said that Holder should resign.
"[He] needs to be held responsible for the 'Fast and Furious' debacle and should be immediately removed from office," Wimmer said Thursday. "The buck stops with the leader, and he was in charge of what occurred there … and the man has no right being in the position he is in."
The commission extended the invitation to Holder, who is the first African-American attorney general in U.S. history, several months ago. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff reiterated the offer several weeks ago in a phone call with Holder.
Holder's office confirmed his Utah trip this week.
"To come all the way out here to a red state and speak to us on a big occasion," Shurtleff said, "I think it's huge."
Holder's decision has left the commission searching for a larger venue to accommodate the anticipated crowd at their annual luncheon. The event is scheduled for Jan. 13.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission is a 15-member board created to promote diversity and equality; commemorate Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 16; and push nonviolence and human rights.
Backlash to Holder's visit would not be unprecedented. When then-Attorney General John Ashcroft flew to Utah to defend the Patriot Act in 2003, protesters rallied outside the Little America hotel.
Shurtleff, who defended Holder's response to the Fast and Furious case in a recent editorial column, expects some opposition to the trip. But he hopes it doesn't overshadow Holder's message of "advancing the goals and hopes and dreams of African-Americans."
"He's admitted that Fast and Furious was a fiasco and was a horrible thing," Shurtleff said. "But we've been working on these cross-border gun sales for years. Rather than doing a 'gotcha' and playing politics, they ought to be focusing on what resources they can give to help the ATF protect the border. They're playing politics this time."
Fast and Furious was essentially a sting operation led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. As part of an investigation into an Arizona arms-smuggling network, straw buyers were allowed to purchase guns and take them to drug cartels in Mexico in an attempt to identify higher-level cartel figures.
About 2,000 guns were bought by suspects in the case, but only 600 were recovered. Two were found near the location where Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed last December.
"The deaths that occurred because of this irresponsible decision and the irresponsible action of the ATF and Eric Holder, they're not a conservative-liberal issue. It's an American issue," said Wimmer, who didn't know Holder was coming to Salt Lake City after missing several recent commission meetings because of his work schedule.
U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who serves on House committees investigating Fast and Furious, said he has nothing against Holder and is "glad he's coming to Utah."
"We can disagree without being disagreeable," Chaffetz said. "I personally don't want to make a spectacle of him coming to Utah. I would hope his coming to Utah would be a positive experience."
Chaffetz is not among the nearly 60 members of Congress who have demanded that Holder resign, but he maintains there are unanswered questions and believes Holder has been "evasive and incomplete" in his answers to Congress.