Bob Bernick's Notebook: The Cost of John Swallow's 10 Months in Office

Written by Bob Bernick on . Posted in Today At Utah Policy

So, what did it cost Utah taxpayers to get rid of GOP Attorney General John Swallow?

The tab is not complete, but it will be at least $2.2 million and probably higher.

 

Various sources confirmed to UtahPolicy Managing Editor Bryan Schott Thursday morning that the beleaguered Swallow was going to resign.

And a Swallow press conference Thursday afternoon confirmed it. (You can read the story here.)

This comes on the heels of the Utah Elections Office special counsel finding, as reported by The Salt Lake Tribune, that Swallow violated state election code in several areas.

That independent counsel was prepared to take those civil charges to state court, where a judge could have ruled the 2012 Attorney General election invalid.

No election, and Swallow is out of office.

Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, who pushed her caucus last summer to do at least something about the allegations against Swallow, and House investigatory committee chairman Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, are now in a tough spot.

On the one hand, who wants to spend more taxpayer dollars on a committee investigation – the outcome of which could only have been impeachment – when they guy you may have impeached quit?

Yes, by the resolution passed by the House in a special session, the Dunnigan committee must make a report on the truth of allegations against Swallow.

And, yes, the committee is also required to make any recommendations on changes in state election law that the Swallow scandal unearthed.

But Wednesday, House Republicans were told the special committee’s work had cost $1.5 million in just 90 days of work.

Previously, Elections Office officials had told UtahPolicy that they believed their special investigation – which did not have public cost updates like the House’s work did – would run around $700,000.

The Elections Office work was narrower than the House’s investigation, and started earlier this year.

That’s why it finished sooner.

The House’s investigation may not be even half over, and could drag on for months -- running the bill upwards of $3 million.

It’s unlikely the public, who are footing the bills, will notice or care what the House resolution says.

Polls showed that more than 70 percent of Utahns wanted Swallow out of office.

Now he is.

So why keep the meter running?

There is still a joint Salt Lake County and Davis County attorneys’ investigation going on. Since that is done by employees of those two departments, the tab is the hours of time deputy attorneys are doing this work instead other investigations and prosecutions.

SL County Attorney Sim Gill said Thursday his investigation will, like the House’s and Election Office’s, continue.

I won’t go into all of the charges reported in the media about Swallow. He has steadfastly denied them all, and did so again at a farewell press conference Thursday afternoon.

I will say that for months UtahPolicy has been declaring that it could/would be the Elections Office investigation that brought him down, not the more public – and higher profile and expensive – investigation by the Utah House.

That’s because the route of the Elections Office – a smaller investigation looking only at election/campaign finance allegations instead of the broader sleazy actions the House was looking at – was shorter and had fewer complications.

True, some argued (and Swallow hinted) that should the Election Office probe end with a court ruling to void his election, he would take that fight to the Utah Supreme Court.

The state Constitution provides only one route to kicking an incumbent from office – impeachment by the House and trial in the Senate.

Thus, no district court judge could remove him by declaring his elections null and void.

There could be a legal argument there.

But clearly Swallow has lost any semblance of credibility among the public.

A recent UtahPolicy survey of several hundred political insiders (conducted weekly on a variety of topics) found that more than 70 percent of Republican insiders believed Swallow should go, and didn’t accept his excuses over having his various computers and cell phones accidently wiped from electronic data.

That data was sought by the House investigators, not by the Elections Office, which clearly had enough evidence of campaign financial reporting violations to take Swallow to court.

Swallow may have hoped that his resignation would end the Elections Office and House probes.

Now it appears it won’t.

The continuance of those investigations is more evidence for Swallow to claim there really are folks in the Capitol who are running a vindictive political and personal scourge against him.

As is the case in politics, the matter now quickly turns to who will replace Swallow.

The state Constitution proscribes how that happens: The state GOP Central Committee will meet – now set for Dec. 14 – and vote on three names to send up to GOP Gov. Gary Herbert.

He’ll pick one and that person will serve until the end of 2014. Next year an election will be held to see who serves out the remaining two years of Swallow’s term.

Then in 2016 – the normal year for an attorney general election – another vote will be held for AG and that office will be back on the normal four-year election cycle.

It appears to me that Herbert’s appointee will want to run in 2014, and again in 2016.

Democrats are already crowing over how the Swallow investigations must run their course – damn the money, full stream ahead.

The public must see the backroom-lobbying, deal-making that the majority party has been guilty of for years, and on and on.

The reality is Swallow should be held accountable for any crimes he committed, and that is the prosecutors’ arena.

Anything unethical, or deal-making, is in the realm of politics – the area for voters. Or in this case the political pressure that drove Swallow from office.

Should there be election consequences?

Republican voters did pick Swallow over other GOP attorney general candidates last year.

And is the case with most large offices in Utah, whoever the Republican nominee is usually wins.

There is a small chance for Democrats here in 2014.

The last two statewide offices Democrats held were both AG seats – Paul Van Dam for one term, Jan Graham for two – in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

And the Republicans have given us former AG Mark Shurtleff for 12 years and then Shurtleff’s hand-picked successor John Swallow.

My guess is the GOP Central Committee, Herbert and others will pick a replacement that has impeccable legal credentials, as well as a fine general reputation.

Sens. John Valentine, R-Orem, and Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, have reportedly already shown an interest in replacing Swallow – although they’ve had to keep a low profile since if Swallow had not resigned and the House impeached him, the Senate, these two men among, would have sat in judgment of Swallow.

But there will be a number of GOP attorneys who will want this appointment. You may see even a few who’ll say now they won’t run again in 2014 – just give them the chance to clean up Swallow’s mess and restore public trust in the AG office.

Finally, why did Swallow quit now?

Clearly the Elections Office findings of guilt was the tipping point – whether Swallow admits that or not.

But Swallow has been under immense pressure for months.

Reportedly his wife had already suggested to him that he leave.

He has large legal bills to pay -- $300,000 he said Thursday.

If Swallow can work out a deal whereby he won’t be charged with any criminal acts, that bodes well for his Utah Bar license.

Pleading to or being found guilty of a misdemeanor or felony is frowned upon by the Bar.

On a personal note, it is never pleasant seeing a man’s life torn apart in the drive for public service.

Swallow clearly had the political bug. He took his two congressional losses deeply. He loved being in the Utah House for his relatively short stay.

He believed himself destined for greater things.

And with the helping hand of Shurtleff and, unfortunately, some unsavory characters they, together, solicited, Swallow today must wonder what the heck has hit him since he stood proudly and took the oath of office in the Capitol Rotunda last January.

Swallow maintains his innocence of all charges of wrongdoing.

But few will see that today.