Bob Bernick's Notebook: Good Night (Not So) Sweet Prince

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

We can now refer to John Swallow as former attorney general.

It’s been a long 11 months; but finally the embattled and critically-politically-injured Swallow is gone.

 

He should have left months ago; a timely resignation would have saved him and his family a great deal of pain and the State of Utah millions of dollars.

Saturday, the House’s special Swallow investigation committee will meet to decide how much longer – and how much more money – it will take to wrap up their work and make recommendations to the 75-member body on campaign and election reform.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has already decided the state Elections Office’s investigation – which ultimately led to Swallow’s to Dec. 3 resignation – is finished.

The Swallow saga is a first for Utah.

As best as anyone can tell, no major state official has ever resigned before.

Certainly there has never been serious talk of an impeachment, nor a special House investigation into wrongdoing by a leading Utah state officeholder.

Unlike states like Illinois (at one time, two former governors enjoyed prison time together), Utah’s politicians have a reputation of solid, good and honorable – if not sometimes boring – service.

So, what have we learned from Swallow?

1) Campaign fund raising can corrupt, both personally and politically.

2) Combine the lust for money with a questionable ethical character, and trouble likely follows.

3) The Republican Party’s Utah dominance can lead blind party loyalists and voters to support a man who, in a more bipartisan state, would be found wanting.

4) While you may not be able to legislate ethical, moral character, you can sure try.

5) And it’s better to try such legislation than to just turn a partisan eye.

Swallow, an attorney who was personally frustrated in two U.S. House races, always sailed close to the ethical line.

His downfall actually started before his rise to be the top state law enforcement officer.

He may have cut his campaign fund-raising teeth in his own races for the 2nd Congressional District in 2002 and 2004.

(He strongly believed that if he had had more money in 2002, he would have unseated Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson.)

But his “art” at getting people to give him cash, sometimes with hints of special treatment, was honed under former AG Mark Shurtleff.

Shurtleff had a propensity to meet with people who were, or may soon be, under penalty of the state’s Consumer Protection Agency.

Francine Giani, the former CPA director who is now head of the state’s Department of Commerce, fired up all kinds of warnings about Shurtleff’s AG office; claiming the office was refusing to prosecute shysters who were scamming Utah citizens.

Shurtleff’s main reply: “I’ll meet with anyone; but give favors to none.”

Some may call that an open door policy. Others may call it an open pocket policy.

Swallow was Shurtleff’s main fundraiser in 2008 and 2009 when Shurtleff was looking at a run against former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett.

It was a race that could have cost $2 million or more, and Shurtleff was calling in all his friends, including the Pay Day lender community where Swallow was working as a local Pay Day lender’s in-house attorney.

In December 2009 Shurtleff hired Swallow as his chief deputy and heir apparent, when Shurtleff retired in 2012 after three terms.

As part of his fund raising duties, Swallow met with a number of questionable characters, took expensive trips free and generally acted as a would-be prosecutor should not.

At one point, Swallow told a prospective campaign donor that he planned to move the Consumer Affairs Office out of the Commerce Department and into the AG’s office.

The donor taped the conversation, perhaps knowing more about Swallow’s character than Utah voters.

Of course, the AG has no control where the Consumer Affairs Office is located; that is the prerogative of the Legislature.

But Swallow was swinging wildly at this point, flush with campaign money (much of it from Shurtleff’s PAC, which Swallow fundraised for) and clearly ahead in the AG’s race.

Swallow wasn’t going to lose another close election because he didn’t have enough money to win. (Does this sound a bit like Richard Nixon in 1972?)

Swallow was a man on the move; at last, a chance to fulfill his political expectations that had stalled when he was a young buck in the Utah House from 1996 to 2002.

There’s a pictured of Swallow that I like: Standing ramrod straight and taking the oath of office Jan. 5, 2013 with his adoring wife looking up into his face.

A very different picture than at his resignation press conference, where he still refused to admit he had done anything wrong.

Look for the Utah Legislature, controlled by the very Republicans who decided to investigate Swallow, to do little in the way of campaign election reform this upcoming session.

Unfortunately, an opportunity missed.

If lawmakers place campaign donation limits on statewide candidates, they’d have to have some limits on their own fund raising.

And they don’t want that.

Nope. Lawmakers will just let Swallow fade away. One bad apple that, they’ll say, didn’t spoil the whole Republican barrel.

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