Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Bennion Sticks His Foot in It

The last thing the Utah Republican Party needed was another conflict of interest scandal.

So, of course, that’s what they’ve gotten.

The newest version of “oh, why did they do that?” comes from Salt Lake County GOP chair Chad Bennion, he of the “big splash – big plans,” but short-term, political career in the Utah House.

Last week Bennion laid into Democratic Salt Lake County prosecutor Sim Gill over Gill’s decision that two West Valley Police narcotics officers were unjustified in the shooting/killing of a young woman suspected of being involved in a drug trade.

Now, it is certainly the job of a partisan political boss like Bennion to criticize an elected prosecutor of the opposing party, especially when that prosecutor has made some debatable decisions and is up re re-election the next year.

But what was absolutely stupefying was for that partisan political operative to have several clear conflicts of interests with the person he was slamming.

And it’s unfortunate that Bennion’s personal family legal troubles are now out in the public view – which could have been avoided if Bennion had just the political antenna to see how he shouldn’t have been the Salt Lake County Republican to be jumping down Gill’s throat.

Embattled Attorney General John Swallow must be smiling today – at least he’s out of the headlines over legal and ethical issues for a short time.

Swallow, as you know, dear UtahPolicy reader, is being investigated by six different entities over questionable behavior during the last five years, which certainly includes conflicts of interest.

And, yes, one of those agencies investigating Swallow is Gill’s Salt Lake County Attorney’s Office.

But the Bennion and Swallow screw-ups are otherwise not related – except that the politically-dominate Utah Republican Party didn’t need another public blow-up.

Some quick facts about Bennion:

— The same day that he originally called Gill a “cop hater” over the WVC police shooting/killing incident, Bennion (not an attorney) was in court defending his wife over a child abuse charge. (This is the unfortunate personal family issue that Bennion could have avoided if he had allowed/assigned some other Salt Lake County GOP leader to take out after Gill.)

Gill says he didn’t even know that Bennion(s) were being prosecuted by his office until he got an email from one of his prosecuting attorneys after the Bennion hearing concluded.

— Bennion’s private job (the chairmanship is volunteer) is as a legal administrator representative for the Utah chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP offers law officers “legal insurance,” and if a member-cop is hauled up on disciplinary action, the FOP (and Bennion) represents them as, in effect, their defense attorney.

— Bennion is “defending” one of the WVC cops who shot and killed the young woman before an administrative body.

— And if Gill ultimately decides to charge the two WFC officers with a crime in connection with the young woman’s killing, then Bennion and the FOP could be helping with at least one of the officer’s defense.

— Gill, along with other county attorneys, has dismissed around 180 drug cases brought by the WVC police because, says Gill, the evidence is tainted over misdeeds of the now-defunct WVC police drug enforcement squad.

The WVC police chief resigned, the WVC mayor didn’t seek re-election this year, and probes continue into the drug squad’s actions and general policing policies in WVC.

Gill’s actions – in dropping all those drug cases and in his actions in the WVC young woman’s killing – could have been fertile political ground for Republicans in the 2014 Salt Lake County attorney’s race.

But by throwing himself and his own personal conflicts with Gill into the mix, Bennion has gone a long way in blunting any political advantage.

In fact, middle-of-the-road voters – and there are a lot of them in Salt Lake County – now have another reason to wonder what the heck is going on with Utah GOP leaders and prominent officeholders?

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, and other legislative Republican leaders have gone out of their way in attempting to clean their own house – that is, the Swallow ethics issues.

The House Swallow probe is just getting underway. It could cost upwards of $3 million and not necessarily result in an impeachment proceeding against the GOP attorney general.

Keeping and/or restoring public faith in state government – run by Republicans for over 40 years in Utah – is a major goal of the Swallow legislative investigation.

Now comes Bennion who has walked himself and the Utah Republican Party right into a real conflicts of interest mess.

There is an anonymous resolution floating around the Internet, unsigned, calling for Bennion to be replaced as the Salt Lake County GOP chair.

No action can be taken on it, however, by the governing Salt Lake County Republican Party Central Committee unless some qualifying Republican steps up, signs his or her name to the resolution, and gets it properly brought before the county CC.

Even then it is unlikely Bennion would be removed. His reputation of being a political junkyard dog during his tenure in the Utah House (1998-2004) seemed well suited for a top partisan office.

Bennion, in fact, served in the Utah House during part of the same time as Swallow (1996-2002).

They were both seen then as young men eager to advance in Utah GOP politics – and well qualified to do so.

Swallow went on to lose two 2nd Congressional District races against Democrat Jim Matheson, playing around the edges of state GOP politics until he hooked up as former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff’s chief fundraiser in 2008-2009, and then succeeding Shutleff in 2012.

Bennion was voted out of office in his 2004 re-election attempt as his Murray-based district moved more Democratic.

He, also, bounced around inside GOP politics, serving as a top aide to a GOP Salt Lake County Councilmember before moving on to his job with the state FOP and, now, as county GOP chair.

Both Swallow’s and Bennion’s political careers – so bright a decade ago — have had hard landings.

These are the last things the state GOP needed at this time – as party bosses prepared for a drag-out, knock-down fight against a group of “mainstream” GOP leaders, including former Gov. Mike Leavitt, over a citizen initiative petition that, if adopted in the 2014 general election, could drastically change how Republican candidates win their party’s nominations in the future.

Will the names Swallow and Bennion play into the 2014 elections? Partisan Republicans can only hope not.