The Utah House took the unprecedented step Wednesday of creating a special committee to investigate alleged misconduct by Attorney General John Swallow, a process that could take months, cost taxpayers several million dollars and lay the groundwork for impeaching the state's top cop.
By a resounding 69-3 vote, the GOP-led House formed a nine-member investigative panel with the power to issue subpoenas and interview witnesses under oath in hopes of providing House members a report of the myriad allegations against the first-term Republican attorney general.
"For me this is about being responsive to the people of Utah, our own constituents. The allegations are serious and if they prove to be true, they are very serious things," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. "As a citizen, you should at least have a basic trust your government will be just, that the attorney general's office will behave with fidelity to the citizens of the state and that the Legislature will behave with fidelity to the people, as well."
Reps. Ken Ivory, Jim Nielson and Curt Oda all three Republicans voted against creating the committee. Ivory raised concerns about the wide scope of the investigation and argued for a delay while the Legislature studied the process.
"We're moving forward in a matter of historical constitutional weight [while] having only a couple days over the weekend to look at this resolution," said Ivory, R-West Jordan. "It offends the constitutional process."
The House did narrow the scope somewhat. Originally, the committee could have looked at any actions taken by Swallow dating back to when he received his law license in 1990.
The revised HR9001 empowers the committee to look at any allegations since Swallow joined the attorney general's office as chief deputy in late 2009 including any actions stemming from his own campaign for the top job and grants the panel authority to expand that scope by a majority vote.
That could be significant, since allegations relating to trips that Swallow took to the posh Newport Beach, Calif., villa owned by convicted businessman Marc Sessions Jenson took place in the summer of 2009, when Swallow was a private attorney and raising money for a short-lived U.S. Senate bid by his predecessor, former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
The House committee will issue a fact-finding report at the end of its work. House members then will have to decide whether the information should give rise to impeachment proceedings or if it resolves the issues.
Lockhart hopes to have the report by year's end.
During Wednesday's House debate, Swallow appeared on KSL Radio's "Doug Wright Show" and voiced concerns that lawmakers may be wanting to dig too far back in time.
Swallow said the Utah Supreme Court ruled that any "removal of an elected official must relate to the activities that he did under color of his authority in his office," so he emphasized that the Legislature should investigate his activities only since he became attorney general in January.
"I have absolutely nothing to hide," he said, "and I pledge that I will fully cooperate with any fair and lawful investigation."
But Swallow said he fears "this has morphed into something that could get crazy."
"If this were a Democrat attorney general, the media would be howling that the Republicans were thinking of lynching a member of the other party that is not in control of the Legislature," Swallow told KSL, "and I think it should go both ways. I think they should set up a fair process."
Minority Democrats, who hold 14 seats in the 75-member House, argued the investigative committee should have eight members, instead of nine, split equally between the two parties. But their push fizzled in a party-line vote.
"[A four-to-four split] will be seen as more above partisan considerations by the majority of Utahns than if we have a committee that is five-four or six-three or seven-two," said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. "I'm trying to enhance the likelihood that the process we go through as we proceed on this investigation is above reproach."
Republicans also rejected a proposal by Rep. Larry Wiley, D-West Valley City, that would have maintained the nine-member committee, but given the chair only a tie-breaking vote.
In the end, House Minority Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, said she was pleased the process is going forward, but disappointed that Democrats will not have equal representation.
"I hope they will still conduct this in a fair and bipartisan manner. It's too important not to."
Seelig said Democrats will be active on the panel to ensure appropriate issues are raised, and, if necessary, file a minority report if they disagree with the majority's findings.
Swallow is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, a pair of county prosecutors and the lieutenant governor's office. He also faces at least two ethics complaints with the Utah State Bar.
The allegations range from claims that he helped broker a bribe to a U.S. senator to receiving improper gifts. He also is accused of promising special treatment for donors to Shurtleff's campaign.
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said the House needs to understand the facts for itself, rather than relying on news reports.
"We owe it to our constituents to move on. This has been hanging over the heads of every member of government, as well as our constituents, for several months," Dee said. "To delay and do nothing is, I think, the worst thing we could be doing."
Lockhart has said no decisions have been made about the committee's party makeup or who will be on it. She said she hopes to make those decisions within two weeks.
Legislative attorneys have begun the process of hiring investigators and legal counsel for the committee. Lockhart said she hopes they will be in place by month's end so the panel can launch its investigation in early August.
Legislative budget analysts predict the probe will cost between $500,000 and $3 million. The House expects to hire a full-time attorney at $330 per hour, a part-time lawyer and an investigator. But Lockhart said that is, at this point, an estimate.
"I don't think you can put a price on the public trust," she said. "That doesn't mean we spend whatever, but that means we, as the people's representatives, need to be careful about that."
Summary of allegations
Utah Attorney General John Swallow and predecessor Mark Shurtleff have come under scrutiny on a number of fronts:
Bribery allegation • Indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson has, at times, accused Swallow of helping to arrange to bribe Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Swallow says he only helped Johnson set up a lobbying deal.
Special consideration? • Three Utah businessmen have said Swallow, as a fundraiser for Shurtleff in 2009, suggested that a contribution to Shurtleff's campaign would win them special consideration from the attorney general's office if there were complaints about their operations.
Rules violation? • At least two ethics complaints have been made to the Utah State Bar, including one by the state's former director of consumer protection alleging Swallow violated attorney-client rules by discussing a consumer-protection case with a potential donor and suggesting the target meet with Shurtleff.
Withholding information? • The lieutenant governor's office is in the process of hiring a special counsel to investigate a complaint that Swallow concealed business interests on his candidate financial disclosure forms, including a company central to the Johnson deal.
Posh vacations • Convicted businessman Marc Sessions Jenson said Swallow and Shurtleff took posh vacations to his Newport Beach, Calif., villa on Jenson's dime while he was free on a plea deal with the Utah attorney general's office. Lawyers for Jenson, who is behind bars for securities violations and is staring at new felony charges, also have alleged Swallow and Shurtleff orchestrated a "shakedown" of their client, extracting more than $200,000 in favors from Jenson for themselves and others, and then prosecuting him when he failed to go along with other demands. The lawyers are asking a judge to remove the attorney general's office from Jenson's case.
$2 million solicitation? • Businessman Darl McBride provided a recording of a 2009 breakfast meeting in which Shurtleff offered him $2 million to take down a website criticizing Mark Robbins, Jenson's former business partner. Shurtleff said he could get the money from Jenson because of his plea deal. Jenson said he refused.