How Far will Lawmakers Go in the Aftermath of the John Swallow Fiasco?

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

It was with disappointment, then growing into anger, that I read over the weekend the special counsel’s report for the Utah Elections Office on the conduct of soon-to-be former Attorney General John Swallow.

 

You can read the report for yourself here.

The report’s language is not inflammatory. In fact, I found it restrained, considering what was being said about Swallow and his actions just before and after he filed his campaign conflict of interest and other forms in March of 2012, as required by law.

Here are my general observations:

-- Swallow purposely deceived Utah voters by filing false and misleading documents.

-- He even talked with one of his attorneys about how he didn’t want to list his P Solutions and other “consulting” businesses in order to avoid unpleasant questioning by the press, political opponents and voters.

-- He used obscure legal reasoning as to why he wasn’t violating campaign reporting laws – and continues to do so today.

It’s reasoning that, the investigators said, doesn’t hold water – even legal water, which can be a bit murky.

-- He backdated various receipts for payments, after sloppy paperwork could have harmed him.

-- He even (I’m not kidding) had an “oral” agreement with himself in one weird business deal.

-- He purposely fostered a “sham” on voters and the Utah public in the way he tried to hide behind trusts and other business structures; saying that his wife, Suzanne, was the manager of the businesses when in fact she didn’t keep the books (Swallow did) and didn’t make management decisions (Swallow did.)

One clearly sees why Swallow announced his upcoming resignation – to take effect Dec. 3 -- on Thursday of last week.

He said in his self-defensive press conference that he did nothing wrong and hadn’t seen the Elections Office report.

But he also knew what was coming, when the report was released Friday.

Swallow talked of the media “frenzy” that was eating he and his family up. Can you imagine that press conference after reporters had a taste of what was really in the Elections Office report?

For a lawyer – especially the attorney general – to act in this way is unacceptable, impeachable and a down right disgrace.

So, while Swallow may still be held accountable by the Elections Office or some court for civil fines and penalties for campaign violations, and could be find his law license in jeopardy before the Bar, one of the questions in front of the Utah House’s investigation of the whole Swallow affair is what is to be done to current election law to strengthen the process – no doubt with the hope that such shenanigans can’t happen again.

I’ve watched the Legislature for many years, and usually when some group or individual misbehaves and the public is harmed, lawmakers react by enhancing the penalties, among other things.

Election law violations currently contain civil penalties, including a judge voiding the officeholder’s election.

In other words, violators can be forced to pay a fine and/or be kicked out of office.

It will be interesting to see if legislators, who have to file the same financial and conflict of interest disclosure forms as Swallow did, will put criminal penalties – no matter how small – into election law.

That would mean that, in theory, a legislator himself could at some time in the future find himself under criminal indictment for failing to file accurate disclosures.

And, boy, how legislators hate to place penalties that some day could catch themselves, ruin their political carriers and lead to the jailhouse.

In fact, Utah legislators’ reaction to any talk of campaign finance limitations, conflicts of interest and such is to yell for more disclosure, and more frequent disclosure.

“Let the people know,” lawmakers say, “and then they can decide whether they want to vote for the candidate or not.”

Of course, this is exactly what Swallow decided not to do – let the people know about his P Solutions, his “consulting.” 

All kept secret by Swallow’s manipulation and disregard for campaign finance reporting laws, the report shows.

Utah is one of the few states that have no limit on campaign contributions.

A candidate for state office can seek and accept any amount of cash from any individual, business, PAC or association.

Lobbyists, PACs, PICs, and businesses who contribute to the political process are also regulated by the Elections Office, but only to the degree of registering and keeping track of required financial filings.

Violations are civil penalties.

When one well-known lobbyist several ago forgot to file his report on time, he was fined $50. Future violations could end up with a suspension of his lobbying license, true.

But a $50 fine?

Parking and speeding violations can be more than that.

Who knows what penalties Swallow will eventually face – tens of thousands of dollars in fines, a suspended Bar license?

One thing I don’t see him facing is any criminal sanctions.

Will the Legislature finally get serious about campaign and election violation and reform?

Considering legislators themselves could face those penalties, the question now is certainly in doubt.



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