House probe of Utah Attorney General John Swallow could hit roadblocks
Politics • Witnesses may balk, documents may be unavailable — Illinois and Connecticut offer precedents.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

While Utah lawmakers' decision to create a special committee to investigate Attorney General John Swallow is a major milestone, hurdles, hardships and possibly heartache lie ahead, warn those who have been through similar ordeals.

Barbara Flynn Currie, majority leader of the Illinois House, is the self-described "Queen of Impeachment."

Currie has chaired two impeachment investigations — one against a state Supreme Court justice who was acquitted, the other into then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's solicitation of bribes, including a "pay-to-play" scheme to fill the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by President Barack Obama.

Blagojevich was arrested, quickly impeached and removed from office in early 2009.

"It's miserable," Currie said. "There's nothing worse than sitting in judgment of your fellow human beings, and if it's your colleague in one way or another, it's extremely painful. And with the Blagojevich thing, it's very sad. Here was someone who was kind of at the very top and to see things implode, it's very unpleasant."

While the Utah House committee won't be looking specifically at impeachment, it is likely to run into similar pitfalls that come with conducting a high-profile inquiry, particularly one that parallels ongoing law enforcement investigations.

In Illinois and in the 2004 probe by the Connecticut House of then-Gov. John Rowland, federal investigations complicated lawmakers' efforts.

Currie said the Illinois panel was provided with some information by U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, but not much.

Specifically, Fitzgerald refused to provide the committee with requested documents and wiretaps of the governor's conversations and objected to the panel interviewing numerous witnesses, saying it could compromise his investigation.

Lawmakers, Currie said, did have the advantage of federal court documents about Blagojevich in which facts "were pretty clear."

In Connecticut — where lawmakers examined whether Rowland took gifts and trips from state contractors, had free work done on a cabin and leased a condo to a businessman at triple the market rate — an ongoing grand jury investigation prompted 13 witnesses called by the committee to invoke their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

"It was a problem because we couldn't really use their investigation," said Rep. Arthur O'Neill, who co-chaired the Connecticut committee. "... They didn't want us calling their witnesses to the committee to testify because that could jeopardize deals they were trying to make."

The committee ended up relying heavily on documents, issuing dozens of subpoenas and compiling more than 400,000 pages of records. Lawmakers also spent about $6 million, hiring 23 attorneys and a dozen investigators.

"For a few weeks, we were the biggest investigative organization in the state," O'Neill said. "It takes time and money."

Ultimately, Rowland resigned after being ordered to testify before the committee as it was wrapping up its work. O'Neill said Rowland later pleaded guilty to a charge first uncovered by the legislative investigation, rather than the federal probe.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who, along with Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings, is assessing whether any state laws were broken in the alleged wrongdoing in the Utah attorney general's office, said his office would have to consider any requests from the House committee.

"Of course, we want to cooperate, but we have to cooperate within the limits of our responsibility," Gill said. "They have their job to do, and we have our job to do, and ours is a very specific, narrow look at this and theirs is very different. Like any investigation, we're not going to compromise or talk about specifics."

A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department declined to comment Friday in light of the ongoing Swallow investigation and because the House committee has not yet been formed.

The Utah House plans to convene July 3 to create the panel.

Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that state agencies participating in the investigation would cooperate, provided it didn't impede other probes.

"That's probably going to be a very careful road to go down," he said, "and I expect we'll have legal counsel advise everyone on what is the appropriate way to do this."

Swallow has said he welcomes the House investigation and is confident it will clear up inaccuracies about the alleged misconduct. He has said he will cooperate fully and open his office to investigators.

The House committee would not, of course, have the authority to recommend impeachment, as the committees in Connecticut and Illinois did. But the House could bring articles of impeachment based on the panel's findings.

The time frame for the Utah committee remains uncertain. Although in the cases of Connecticut and Illinois — as well as the Arizona impeachment of then-Gov. Evan Mecham — the investigations moved relatively quickly.

The Connecticut panel, formed in January 2004, originally had a three-month due date, but the deadline was extended twice before Rowland resigned in June.

The investigation that led to the impeachment of Mecham took three months, wrapping up in January 1988.

And the inquiry into Blagojevich's conduct took just six weeks over the December holidays.

It benefited from information, including wiretaps and witness testimony, that was part of Blagojevich's warrant when he was arrested a week before the lawmakers' investigation convened.

O'Neill said, in his experience, targets start out welcoming the investigations, but as they go on, unflattering details inevitably emerge.

"Nobody looks better after they've been investigated than before. It just doesn't work out that way," he said. "While occasionally the net result is someone is exonerated … by the time people in a body like a legislative chamber feel like they've got enough evidence to start an investigation, that's kind of the beginning of the countdown to someone having to leave office."

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke —

14 in running for special counsel

The lieutenant governor's office has received bids from 14 law firms or attorneys to lead a special-counsel investigation into whether Attorney General John Swallow violated Utah campaign laws by failing to list two businesses on his candidate financial-disclosure forms.

One of the businesses, P-Solutions, is central to a claim that Swallow helped arrange a lobbying deal for businessman Jeremy Johnson to avert a federal probe.

Mark Thomas, Utah's director of elections, said a committee will be formed to review and score the bids over the next few weeks.

"Hopefully, within the next three to four weeks," Thomas said, " ... we will have sat down with our special counsel for the first time [and] have a contract signed."

Originally, only two respondents submitted bids. The names of the bidders cannot be released until the contract is awarded.

Robert Gehrke