The legislature hurried to address a problem with Utah law that could have a bearing on ongoing investigations into alleged ethics violations by Utah Attorney General John Swallow.
Among the more than 200 bills considered by the Utah legislature on its final day was a newcomer. Senate Bill 289 sought to fix a problem with the law that gives the state Attorney General the power to investigate himself in cases of ethics violations.
The bill was introduced by Republican Senator Peter Knudson of Brigham City, and comes after the group Alliance for a Better Utah filed a complaint against Attorney General John Swallow with the lieutenant governor’s office. That complaint alleges that Swallow broke campaign disclosure laws by, among other things, failing to report outside income.
The Alliance’s Mary Ann Martindale told members of an 11th-hour panel that the fix was an obvious one.
“I would like to speak in support of this bill. This is an obvious code gap. Maybe we need some further looking at this to make sure we’re covering all of these gaps in addition but I would encourage you to support this bill," Martindale said.
Attorney General Swallow is under investigation by the FBI and the Department of Justice - who are looking into claims made by businessman Jeremy Johnson that Swallow helped a negotiate a deal to bribe Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid through a lobbyist – to get a federal investigation dropped. That revelation came after Salt Lake Tribune reporter Robert Gerkhe broke the story in early January. Utah Democrats have since called on Governor Gary Herbert to appoint a special investigator to look into the claims.
The new bill would give the Lieutenant Governor the power to appoint a special counsel to investigate allegations against the attorney general, instead of letting Swallow to investigate himself.
Ben Lusty, a private attorney in Salt Lake said told the panel that the bill was a necessary fix.
“I don’t think anyone would agree that the Attorney General should investigate himself when he’s the subject of an accusation," Lusty said. "To my mind it actually creates an ethical conflict of interest for an attorney to be asked to represent an opinion on whether he or she did something wrong. I think this should be done and I don’t see any reason for this to be delayed. I think it should be done in this session.”
Senate Bill 289 quickly passed the House and Senate on Thursday, before the close of the 2013 legislative session just before midnight.