It’s often the case that politicians don’t get to choose their best moments, those that define their time in office.
Such may well be the case with Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.
Lockhart, who said she’s tried not to be a powerful speaker, but an “empowering speaker,” admitted in her opening day remarks that dealing with corruption charges against former Attorney General John Swallow were her saddest days as speaker.
But she added that she believes the Swallow scandal was also one of the finest hours of the House, because representatives did what they had to do – ensure public trust.
And I believe Lockhart’s four years as speaker – she is the state’s first female speaker – will ultimately be defined by how well she led her body in the Swallow matter.
She had to walk a thin line, but was strong in doing so.
She had to pursue a member of her own party.
She had to do so without angering too many Republicans, or seeming to enjoy pounding a fellow party officeholder.
Some members of her 61-member GOP caucus wanted to move directly to impeachment proceedings against Swallow.
Others in her caucus wanted not to act at all, claiming there were then two ongoing criminal investigations and a separate State Elections Office investigation. Let those play out and don’t spend any more money, those folks argued.
And both Republicans and Democrats were complaining about the cost of a separate House investigation.
It was uncharted waters.
The Utah House had never conducted an impeachment of a top state officer before; had never conducted a broad-reaching and expensive independent investigation before.
Some citizens and the media were barking for more action against Swallow.
Other citizens and conservative groups were saying let others look at Swallow, the House should spend its time and taxpayer money on public lands fights, same-sex marriage defense and such.
But Lockhart was firm.
It was the House’s constitutional responsibility to investigate or impeach top state officials accused of serious crimes, she said time and again.
The cost meter started at around $2 million.
But others worried investigating Swallow would cost the House much more, maybe double that amount.
After a lot of thought, some good advice from her staff attorneys, and several contentious (and open, I must say) Republican caucuses last summer, Lockhart and her leadership decided along with the caucus to begin an investigation, not full impeachment hearings.
A seasoned outside attorney and investigator were hired.
Lockhart set up a bipartisan nine-member special committee (with five Republicans and four Democrats – thus keeping the minority party onboard).
There was a brief stumble when Lockhart named a well-respected attorney/lawmaker as committee chair. But he had to resign because his law firm had done work for one of Swallow’s main accusers.
The committee had a slow start, admittedly, because a lot of its early work had to be behind closed doors.
And it turned out that Swallow gave up the ghost and resigned because of the Election Office’s investigation, which was preparing to take him to court to get him removed from office.
But work by the House committee turned out invaluable – finding critical evidence of wrong-doing and evidence suppression that surely would have led to Swallow’s impeachment if he had not quit in early December.
And it was those discoveries that are now leading to a number of bills aimed at stopping the “dark money” coming into Utah state races, including negative campaigning against some legislators themselves.
The House’s Swallow investigation may end up costing nearly $4 million.
A lengthy report is expected within a few weeks (at least the draft copy).
Who knows if the House’s work on Swallow would have happened without Lockhart, and her justified efforts in keeping the GOP-controlled House out front in bringing to the law’s bar a dirty officeholder.
She may well have been saddened by the Swallow scandal.
But Becky Lockhart did Utahns a favor, and did her job, in pushing for such an investigation and having the political will in spending the needed dollars to see it through.