This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
No longer confronted with criminal charges, former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff may be in the clear in a court of law, but the court of public opinion is another matter.
And that reality, political observers say, should serve as a blunt reminder to every officeholder: Public corruption cases may be hard to prove, but the fallout from high-profile investigations and resulting charges can be devastating.
"This ugly episode should stand as a significant cautionary tale to all public officials," said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
Shurtleff and his anointed successor, former Attorney General John Swallow, faced multiple charges in the wake of legislative, administrative and criminal investigations. A judge dropped the Shurtleff case Wednesday; the Swallow prosecution continues.
"The lasting message from the Swallow and Shurtleff cases, despite the Shurtleff dismissal, should be that public corruption is a serious matter, will not be tolerated and violating the public trust comes with serious consequences," said Josh Kanter, founder of the progressive group Alliance for a Better Utah. "Whether it leads to a guilty verdict, the prosecution of criminal charges or merely Mr. Swallow's resignation from office, the public interest and trust have been well-served."
Kanter's group, which pushed early on for Swallow's ouster from office, said it would be irresponsible without knowing all the facts that the prosecutor had to second-guess Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings' decision to seek dismissal of the charges against Shurtleff.
Instead, he praised Rawlings and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill the latter is prosecuting Swallow for taking on these complex cases and "telling ordinary Utahns that they have our backs in a system that too many believe is rigged or corrupt."
State Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck worries that the Shurtleff dismissal could undermine that public trust. The Salt Lake City Democrat served on a legislative panel that investigated Swallow's alleged misdeeds and issued a scathing report about a pay-to-play environment at the Utah Attorney General's Office.
"Our intent [on] the committee was to make things right with the public, who really felt they had been let down by what was allegedly done by Mr. Swallow and what we discovered," she said. "... It's hard for me to be able to turn to the public, when we talk about transparency and accountability and our efforts to try to do right and then have something like this happen."
Former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said Rawlings deserves credit for dropping such a visible case.
"This may surprise you, but I think it takes a lot of courage and it's often more difficult to dismiss a case," Tolman said. "It's a little inconsistent to not give the same credit to Troy's decision to move for dismissal as we do, as a society, to the choice to bring the charges in the first place."
Tolman pointed to, among other things, Rawlings' argument that federal investigators were withholding evidence that could potentially aid Shurtleff's defense.
That evidentiary requirement "is not some technicality that Mark Shurtleff is getting off on," Tolman said. It cuts to the heart of the justice system.
It also could factor into the Swallow prosecution, he warned. "It is going to mean intense pressure on the Salt Lake County attorney's office to make the same decision, because you see similar enough factual allegations."