Better Brooms, Bigger Rugs | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Better Brooms, Bigger Rugs 

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Utahns might be reveling in their sense of purity, secretly rejoicing in the almost-continuous stream of rousing scandals sullying the luster of American politics. But, while Utah's public figures might not be the king-of-the-mountain elites anticipating the next volley of unseemly accusations, they are, just like their counterparts in other states, merely human and fallible. On the surface they all look freshly scrubbed and squeaky clean, but the reality is a simple matter of statistical probability—there are skeletons in virtually everyone's closet.

Despite the naive idealism in which we prided ourselves as kids, there are few people who have walked unfailingly on the highest moral and ethical ground. It's true that Utah's political history appears to have had fewer scandals than, say, Virginia, which has been recently rocked by a super epidemic of damaging revelations, though we have certainly seen some doozies of our own. Overall, it seems that the incidence of moral and ethical "errors" has generally been lower here, but I suspect our relatively unsoiled political history is attributable to better brooms and bigger rugs.

Undeniably, the biggest scandals in Utah's relatively short history were the related arrests of Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow, both former Utah attorneys general. They were charged with multiple counts of public corruption under bribery laws—for taking improper gifts and payoffs from businessmen who were under criminal scrutiny.

Many believed that the parallel prosecutions would result in convictions, but Utah's kibitzing residents were frustrated, first by a series of delays, and ultimately, by the turned-state's-evidence cooperation of Shurtleff in, presumably, helping the prosecution nail his successor. Additionally, the long delays actually became the basis for relief under the constitutional provision for right to a speedy trial. All charges against Shurtleff were dropped, perpetuating Utah's reputation for immaculately conceived attorneys general. We might never know what went on in the back rooms of Utah's political circles, but one cannot underestimate involvement of the state's predominant religion, which loathes criminal prosecution of its faithful members. Just how much influence The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints exerted is anyone's guess, but its most recent tampering with voter-ratified initiatives is probably a reliable indicator of the forces that caused the Shurtleff case to be dropped. Withdrawal of the charges was no indication of their validity, but it's unlikely Utahns will ever have answers on whether Shurtleff was criminally culpable.

Although Swallow's eight felonies and single misdemeanor moved forward to a trial, the jury found him not guilty on all counts. The facts showed that he had, indeed, accepted gifts which were questionable, yet 12 worthy peers determined that the former LDS bishop had not acted contrary to the law or the public interest.

Over the years, there have been a handful of Utah politicians who carelessly let down their guards and disappeared in the humiliation that followed. A case-in-point was Rep. Allan T. Howe, the faithful LDS Democratic freshman congressman and former assistant Utah attorney general, who, during his 1976 bid for re-election, was nabbed for offering, not only one, but two, Salt Lake Police Department decoy-prostitutes 20 bucks for a frisky frolic back at "their place."

Because Howe's arrest was regarded as un-fake-news, there was no easy way out. Church and state "janitorial services" were unable to come up with a believable spin. Cruising the red-light district of State Street, Howe had stopped to talk to the two girls who were parked in their car. When one of them asked what he was doing, he had volunteered, "Looking for a little fun," and the mandatory art-of-the-deal agreement for a specific service and a definite price were accomplished.

Howe aggressively denied the allegations, passionately maintaining his innocence, and providing an imaginative claim that he believed he was being taken to a party with some of his constituents. The record stood for itself, for it was indeed from "... the mouths of two or more witnesses." Poor Howe. He was disgraced, likely reprimanded severely by his church, and ultimately was defeated by Dan Marriott, a Republican. Miraculously, he lost himself in Washington, D.C.—where there's always leniency and redemption for the shamed—then reinvented himself as a highly successful lobbyist. For years after, Howe's name was synonymous with the parsimonious pursuit of naughty fun. Twenty bucks? Really! R.I.P., Howe.

The recent shocking revelations of improprieties by Virginia's top officials are really no surprise. (Actually, it should give us a warm feeling inside to remember that our own Orange Buffoon has also been accused by 23 women of sexual misconduct, and has yet to be held accountable.) Anywhere there's power and money, the regular release of titillating stories of impropriety will always be with us, but before we point fingers, we must remember that, even in Utah, we must deal with the unfortunate truth that people will be people, and boys will be boys.


The author is a former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and one mongrel dog. Send feedback to comments@cityweekly.net

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