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Attempts by Democratic lawmakers to ask tough questions of embattled Utah Attorney General John Swallow during a budget hearing were swatted down Friday by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, chairman of the appropriations committee who ruled them out of order.
"If there was something that happened that was untoward, that should be shaken out in a court of law and not in an appropriations meeting," argued Thatcher, a West Valley City Republican and an ardent Swallow supporter.
Thatcher jumped to Swallow's defense, ruling the question out of order, and likewise refused to allow Swallow to answer a question from Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, about conflicts of interest in outside employment.
Swallow is under federal investigation for his role in assisting indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson who sought help fighting a Federal Trade Commission inquiry into his I Works business and for consulting work he did on a Nevada cement project.
King pressed Swallow on whether he was familiar with rules regarding outside employment for state employees and conflicts of interest.
Thatcher again ruled King's question out of order.
"I have serious questions about the extent to which the Attorney General's Office, past and current, is not in compliance with those rules," King argued. "I think we ought to be talking about that."
Swallow had noted that he could not retain attorneys at their current pay scale, and King contended that their outside-employment arrangements were germane.
"I'm not out there trying to grandstand," King, an attorney, said after the hearing. "[Thatcher] is just blatantly protecting the attorney general."
Thatcher insisted after the hearing that the Democrats were, indeed, grandstanding and scoring political points and that the questions were outside the scope of a budget hearing.
"When [Dabakis] got into speculation, he stepped outside the purview of our appropriations committee and I shut him down. Same thing with Brian King," Thatcher said. "The second he stepped into making allegations, I shut him down."
At one point, Thatcher referred to Swallow as "General Swallow," to which the attorney general replied, "John is fine. … I've been called worse."
"Not by anyone with any integrity," Thatcher said.
Before the hearing, Swallow said he has had to endure a media onslaught unlike anyone before him.
"I'm still standing," he said.
Senators have been encouraged not to discuss the Swallow allegations publicly, in case they have to eventually sit as the jury in an impeachment proceeding against the Attorney General.
"We need to remain as unbiased as possible in case we are called upon to do our constitutional duty," Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said. "We believe in due process and presumption of innocence, and we make sure we don't in any way cloud that responsibility that we have as senators."
In 2010, Swallow, then Utah's chief deputy attorney general, connected Johnson with Richard Rawle, the late owner of the Provo-based Check City payday-loan chain, whom Johnson paid $250,000 the first installment in a $600,000 arrangement. Rawle and Swallow said the money was to hire lobbyists. Johnson, at times, has said it was meant to bribe Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Reid has denied any knowledge of Johnson's case.
At the same time, Rawle paid Swallow $23,500 for consulting work on a cement project in Nevada. Swallow said the payment was unrelated to Johnson's deal with Rawle, although Rawle, before his death, acknowledged using Johnson's money to pay Swallow.
Swallow later returned the money and asked to be paid from a different account. He did not disclose the payment or his role in the consulting company on his financial disclosure.
Swallow has contended he didn't need to disclose the arrangement and that it complied with rules regarding outside employment.
His predecessor, former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who handpicked Swallow as his successor, said he didn't know about the consulting deal or Swallow's involvement with Johnson. He said that, while the consulting work complied with the office's rules, he didn't believe it was a good idea.
Lee Davidson contributed to this story.