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It may take four months and as much as $200,000 to determine whether Utah Attorney General John Swallow violated campaign laws, but state officials are confident they've picked the right team for the job.
The lieutenant governor's office announced Tuesday that the business law firm Snell & Wilmer, LLC, will serve as special counsel in an investigation of whether Swallow committed three violations in last year's campaign.
The company, which boasts more than 400 employees throughout nine locations in the western United States and Mexico, beat out 13 other firms for the job.
Applications came from firms both big and small, local and national.
"We had some really good firms apply," Mark Thomas, chief deputy for the lieutenant governor's office, told The Salt Lake Tribune. "We screened them all for qualifications: scope of work, conflicts of interest, cost. When it came down to it, [Snell & Wilmer] were the most economical choice of the top-tier candidates."
Each applicant was evaluated on merit and cost. Snell & Wilmer finished first in both categories.
Its proposed price tag of $200,000 the maximum amount the company can charge the state for its four-month investigation was the lowest of all qualified bidders, while its level of experience was among the highest.
Snell & Wilmer specializes in business law and has a history of investigating white-collar crime and a familiarity with election rules and financial disclosures all of which will come in handy in examining allegations that Swallow concealed information on his financial-disclosure forms, Thomas said.
"It's not too often you get someone with the highest technical score and lowest cost," said Thomas, who oversaw the selection process. "Usually you get someone with a high tech score and the cost is huge."
The left-leaning group Alliance for a Better Utah has accused Swallow of breaking a dozen election laws, including concealing his interest in a company tied to the scandal involving indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson.
Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell dismissed nine of 12 allegations, but ruled the remaining three merited further inquiry. These allegations center on Swallow's involvement with two companies: P-Solutions and SSV.
It will be up to Snell & Wilmer's attorneys to investigate.
If they determine Swallow, did, indeed, violate election law by withholding information about his involvement with those companies, they will recommend he be brought before a judge.
At that point, Thomas said, the lieutenant governor's office will decide if Snell & Wilmer should also prosecute the case or if new counsel is needed.
Although both the Alliance for a Better Utah and Swallow's attorney Rod Snow expressed confidence in Snell & Wilmer's ability to conduct a fair and thorough investigation, both sides raised their eyebrows at the company's proposed timeline.
Four months, Snow said, seems like a long time.
"If they limit their scope of investigation to the three counts not already discredited by the lieutenant governor," Snow said, "I don't see how it could take four months."
The appointment of Snell & Wilmer as special counsel came nearly two months after the government began to solicit bids for a special counsel a process that proved more difficult than officials imagined.
Only two candidates initially applied by the end of the first two-week bidding period. Of those two bidders, one had a major conflict of interest that disqualified it. The other was a small local firm.
After extending the bidding period for another two weeks, state officials had to vet each applicant before coming to a final determination.
The Alliance for a Better Utah bemoaned how long it has taken.
"Despite the law's requirement for expediency, and our frustration at the delays, we are pleased that counsel has finally been named," the organization wrote in a news release. " We believe that the only way to restore the public trust in the attorney general's office is to ensure that these investigations are independent, in-depth and beyond reproach."
According to the law firm's website, Snell & Wilmer lawyers have served on a number of government committees and counsels in several states where the firm has offices.
Experts initially expressed concern about the conflict-of-interest minefield that might plague whoever was awarded the special counsel job.
Thomas said background checks including political donation history and party ties were run on top applicants. Ten of Snell & Wilmer's more than 50 Salt Lake City-based attorneys will be a part of the Swallow investigation.
Five will serve on the primary team, which will do much of the legwork, and five on a secondary unit that will assist as needed and help determine whether Swallow should be tried.
The rest of the company's 25 Utah partners will be walled off from the investigation, Thomas said.
According to state records, a third of Snell & Wilmer's local partners have made political contributions to state politicians in the past decade.
But the only contributing partner who may be tapped to assist in Swallow's investigation is Alan L. Sullivan, who has donated a total of $600 to three Democrats since 2008. He last contributed $300 to Peter Corroon during the then-Salt Lake County mayor's 2010 gubernatorial bid.
Snell & Wilmer declined to comment Tuesday on its appointment as special counsel.
Swallow, who is a Republican, is also under investigation by federal, state and county officers along with a special Utah House committee. He faces a range of allegations, including accusations that he helped broker a bribe to a U.S. senator and received improper gifts.
He has denied any wrongdoing.
Who will investigate the alleged election-law violations?
The law firm Snell & Wilmer has designated 10 lawyers who will investigate the campaign-law violations allegedly committed by John Swallow in his run for attorney general.
The primary team, which will lead the probe, consists of five attorneys: Matthew Lalli, Stewart Peay, Brad Merrill, Mike Liburdi and Jeremy Stewart.
Five more lawyers will serve on the secondary team, which will assist as needed and oversee the final determination of whether Swallow should be prosecuted: Alan Sullivan, Wade Budge, Brett Johnson, Prescott Pohl and Cortland Andrews.
What will the special counsel investigate?
Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell dismissed nine of 12 allegations against Attorney General John Swallow, but ruled the remaining three merited further inquiry. These allegations center on Swallow's involvement with two companies: P-Solutions and SSV.
P-Solutions was paid $23,500 by Richard Rawle, owner of the Provo-based Check City payday-loan chain. Rawle said in an affidavit before his death that the payment was for consulting work Swallow did on a Nevada cement project. Rawle got the money from indicted St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson, who had paid Rawle to help blunt a federal investigation of Johnson's I Works business.
After he became a candidate for attorney general, Swallow learned the money came from Johnson and asked for payment from another account.
Swallow removed his name as a manager of P-Solutions the same day he filed for office.
In its role as special counsel, Snell & Wilmer will investigate:
• Whether Swallow failed to report his involvement with P-Solutions and SSV on his financial-disclosure statement.
• If Swallow should have disclosed an $8,500 sum Rawle paid to P-Solutions (the remaining $15,000 came outside the disclosure time frame).
• Whether Swallow knowingly provided false information on those forms.
Swallow's attorney has said his client filed his disclosure forms as advised by counsel and has offered to submit amended versions.