Utah Attorney General John Swallow asked the state's top federal prosecutor Monday to conduct an investigation into allegations by indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson that Swallow helped broker a bribe to quash a federal probe of Johnson.
Swallow has adamantly denied involvement in any such deal, insisting that he only put Johnson in touch with Richard Rawle, the late owner of the Provo-based Check City payday-loan chain, to hire lobbyists to help Johnson with his case before federal regulators.
In a letter Monday to U.S. Attorney for Utah David Barlow, Swallow, who was sworn in as Utah's top cop a week ago, maintained his innocence and said he is "deeply disappointed" by the allegations.
"I deny that I have ever participated in a scheme to bribe a member of Congress," Swallow wrote. "I expect no special treatment. I do not hold myself or anyone else above the law. … I urge your office to look into these allegations and I pledge my full support and cooperation."
U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch said a response to the letter was being prepared but it would not be made public by her office.
Johnson has alleged that Swallow, a Republican, helped broker a $600,000 plan to enlist Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to intervene in a Federal Trade Commission investigation of Johnson's I Works company.
Reid, too, has denied the allegation as false innuendo.
Swallow says his only involvement was connecting Johnson with Rawle to help Johnson hire lobbyists to work on the FTC case.
I'm asking the people of the state of Utah to trust the person they elected and let things move forward," Swallow told KUTV News. "What I don't want them to do is rush to judgment with one side of the story and think the worst."
He said that Rawle already signed an affidavit in early December, three days before he died, "facing his maker," that said Johnson's allegations did not happen. Others who were involved in the meetings are preparing similar statements, he said.
"I'm the first person to say I'm not perfect, and I try to do the best I can. Every day I make judgment calls and this is one judgment call I wish I had back," said Swallow, who added that he feels like one of many victims of Johnson.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis had previously called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint an independent special prosecutor to investigate Johnson's claims.
Dabakis praised Swallow on Monday for requesting the probe, but said it would be best for someone from outside Utah's political power structure to do the digging.
"It's really critical that whoever does this investigation be brought here completely outside the territory and has no ties and can look at this with a completely unjaundiced eye," Dabakis said. "It's of critical importance that the people of the state have absolute, complete faith. … There needs to be that level of confidence, and I think that level can best be built with someone from the outside."
Enid Mickelsen, a Republican National committeewoman and former member of Congress, had proposed the creation of an independent group to investigate the allegations, but said Monday night she is content with the U.S. attorney handling the matter.
She said it should not be handled by Holder and the Justice Department or it would be driven by politics. Holder had investigated Mickelsen and prosecuted her former husband when she was a congresswoman, and she said he has also politicized other issues more recently.
Mickelsen added that Democratic calls to involve Holder in the case unnecessarily politicize a fact-finding mission.
"It's necessary for the public trust that there be an independent investigation. If John Swallow hasn't done anything wrong, it's an opportunity for him to clear his name," she said. "The other issue is, I think, that we are lacking in ethics laws and the campaign finance laws we have in this state."
Johnson, who is under federal indictment for a single count of mail fraud, had planned to plead guilty last week to new charges of bank fraud and money-laundering regarding his business practices. But the deal fell apart when Johnson produced a list of people mostly the defendant's family members and business associates whom he claimed the U.S. Attorney's Office had agreed not charge if the St. George businessman pleaded guilty.
Utah's new attorney general was on the list, Johnson has said, because while the defendant believed Swallow had taken some improper actions, he didn't want him prosecuted and subject to prison as Johnson was.
Prosecutors balked when U.S. District Judge David Nuffer suggested the list be included as part of the court record, and the plea deal fizzled when the two sides failed to agree which names would be on the tally.
The U.S. Attorney's Office denied Sunday there was ever any agreement not to prosecute Swallow. An Oct. 15 email from Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Ward to Johnson's lawyer, Nathan Crane, said no list of people who would not be subject to charges could be included in the plea agreement.
Instead, Ward pointed to a paragraph of the proposed plea deal which stated that prosecutors would consider the I Works investigation closed with Johnson's plea, based on evidence they had accumulated up to then.
Also on Monday, the progressive-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, called on the Utah State Bar to review Swallow's conduct and, if necessary, reprimand him or revoke his license to practice law.
"John Swallow has admitted that he had these conversations with Mr. Johnson, and that, in and of itself, constitutes some ethical questions, at least from a bar perspective. Who's he truly representing, if he's the top law enforcement officer in the state, but he's still working to help out this client or friend?"asked Maryann Martindale, alliance executive director. "I think the bar should look into whether he's breached those rules of conduct."
Billy Walker, the bar's senior counsel for the Office of Professional Conduct, said his office is prohibited from commenting on whether it has received a complaint about any attorney.