John Swallow, a Republican candidate for attorney general, has suggested that the job of protecting Utah consumers be transferred from the Department of Commerce to the attorney general. That sounds like a bureaucratic shuffle of little consequence. It's not. It's a really bad idea spawned by a long, nasty feud between the A.G.'s office and the Division of Consumer Protection.
That history, and the circumstances surrounding Swallow's suggestion, is the best reason to keep consumer protection right where it is today in state government.
Swallow is chief deputy to current A.G. Mark Shurtleff, who is not running for a third term. His office has crossed swords repeatedly with Francine Giani, director of the Department of Commerce, over enforcement actions arising from consumer protection. Shurtleff himself has tried at least once to strip consumer protection from the commerce department and add it to his portfolio.
One of the more high-profile clashes occurred over the case of Rick Koerber. Commerce compiled evidence and submitted it to the A.G. for prosecution. The A.G. declined, citing lack of evidence. A frustrated Giani subsequently took that evidence to the U.S. attorney, who, after further digging by the FBI and IRS, brought a federal indictment against Koerber for running a $100 million Ponzi scheme based in Utah County. Koerber is awaiting trial.
Over the years, the Division also has gone after numerous telemarketing companies who have been heavy campaign donors to Shurtleff. The case of one such defendant, Jeremy Johnson, also resulted in federal charges for an alleged scam involving thousands of customers and millions of dollars.
Then there's the case of Aaron Christner, who has been fined $400,000 by the Division of Consumer Protection for various violations involving telemarketing over several years. He approached Swallow about a political fundraiser for the candidate, and during that conversation, according to a recording of it, Swallow said that if he were elected A.G., he would move consumer protection from the Department of Commerce to his office. He described the relationship between the offices as "dysfunctional."
Perhaps. But given the Division of Consumer Protection's willingness to pursue fraud vigorously, and the A.G.'s checkered record, we think Commerce should keep the job. We also buy the Division's argument that it can take administrative actions short of court cases that would not be available to the A.G.
Gov. Gary Herbert backs the status quo. He's right.