The Utah Legislature authorized the creation of an investigative committee of lawmakers ordered to investigate the allegations that controversy-soaked Attorney General John Swallow is not fit for public office.
There was no surprise that House lawmakers would authorize a nine-member committee to look into allegations of misconduct by Attorney General John Swallow, who is under multiple investigations from federal, state and other investigative bodies. But the nuts and bolts of the hearings today offer some important takeaways, presented here in no particular order of relevance:
1. The House GOP is worried voters will come at ‘em like a torch-and-pitchfork mob if they’re seen as botching the investigation
“Does anyone think Swallow is going to be the issue in 2014? Or do you think the Republicans in the majority will be the issue in 2014?” House Majority Leader Brad Dee asked the GOP caucus Wednesday morning as they huddled before heading into open session. “If you think it's John Swallow, you’re missing the boat.”
The concern of blowback especially arose as some worried that if the investigative committee were stacked with Republicans, it could be seen as Republicans protecting their party’s own. It was especially troublesome for Salt Lake County Republicans, who worried that they could be punished at the polls if the investigation appears unfair.
Rep. Jim Bird, R-West Jordan, reminded lawmakers of the blowback that came in the 2011 session, when lawmakers passed House Bill 477 that would have gutted Utah’s open-records law, had it not been later recalled.
“If you thought HB477 was a big deal …when this [investigation process] gets going then you ain’t seen nothing yet,” Bird said.
2. The investigative committee will focus on Swallow’s time working at the Attorney General’s Office, but could dig deeper
The committee’s mandate is simply to gather facts and not make recommendations either for or against impeachment. They’re also lasering in largely on the time period since John Swallow became a Deputy Chief Attorney General in December 2009 to the present day.
However, the committee could look into allegations that came before Swallow stepped into office, if the committee decided it was relevant and approved the decision by a majority vote; useful, in case the committee wants to look into the interactions he had while living on businessman Marc Jenson’s dime at a California resort in 2009.
3. The Speaker of the House will pick the Ds and Rs on the Legislature’s investigative A-team
A major debate centered around on how many Democrats to put on the nine-member panel, with some arguing in caucus it should be representative of Democrats in the House -- meaning only two Democrats, to seven Republicans.
Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, made a move to allow the makeup to be a 5-to-4 split, one favored by Democrats, arguing that it would help validate the process as fair by giving more power to the minority party.
“Power alone is not the most relevant consideration,” McIff said. “Sometime,s the most important consideration is restraint when you have power.” The motion failed and, currently, it will still be up to House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, to decide the final makeup of the committee.
4. A Democratic call for an equally split, bipartisan committee died right on party lines
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, pitched changing the committee from nine members to eight, and having an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. While King pointed out that’s how the House Ethic Committee is comprised, his motion was killed along party lines 58 nays to 13 yeas.
5. Swallow has got three “wait-and-see” supporters
The final vote authorizing the committee passed with 69 yeas and 3 nays.
The nays were Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, and Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan.
Ivory is known for challenging the federal government’s authority on a variety of issues that he believes the state could do better, but this issue is not one of them. In House debate, Ivory repeated a call he’s made before that lawmakers wait until federal law enforcement finish investigating Swallow before taking action.
Clearly, though, this was a minority opinion, one beaten down by the votes of his fellow party members, and even joked about on Twitter.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, tweeted: “During the House debate, I am going to chug a green-Jello square every time Ken Ivory tries to delay this process.”