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PLAN TO LIMIT ATTORNEY GENERAL’S ROLE PUT ON HOLD

SHARE PLAN TO LIMIT ATTORNEY GENERAL’S ROLE PUT ON HOLD

A proposed constitutional amendment that would strip the Utah attorney general's office of most of its authority and staff has been shelved - at least for now.

Rep. Byron Harward, R-Provo, has decided to wait until the 1996 Legislature before introducing the amendment, which would place all civil litigation functions under the jurisdiction of a "general counsel" appointed by the governor."It wasn't critical that we do it this year (the 1995 Legislature)," Harward said, noting the earliest the public would have a chance to vote on the proposed amendment would be in November 1996, anyway.

Until then Attorney General Jan Graham will be "educating" Utah lawmakers on the importance of an independently elected attorney general.

"I don't see the Legislature out to get us as much as they don't understand what this office does in its totality. They just don't know the work we do and the role we play," said Palmer DePaulis, Graham's chief of staff.

Under the current system, the attorney general's office handles all litigation for the state, acting as counsel for all state agencies, defending the state against various claims and defending laws passed by the Legislature. The office also initiates criminal prosecutions in a variety of areas, like welfare and securities fraud, money laundering and drug trafficking.

Harward has proposed a bifurcated system whereby Utah's elected attorney general would retain his or her role as a criminal prosecutor, but all civil functions would become the domain of an appointed general counsel.

Of course, an appointed general counsel would more closely reflect the political ideology of the elected governor.

Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt has repeatedly stated he has enjoyed a good working relationship with Graham, a Democrat. But conservative lawmakers have not been as pleased with Graham.

The proposal stems from what some lawmakers see as a contradictory role played by the attorney general's office.

On one hand, the attorney general's office represents state agencies in court actions and on the other the attorney general's office has initiated investigations of wrongdoing by state agencies. Because the attorney general's office cannot defend an agency it is prosecuting, these investigations in the past have forced the state to spend millions of dollars on outside counsel fees.

But the fact that Harward and others would want to strip the attorney general's office of its staff and civil authority smacks of pure political power-grabbing to some. Graham is the only Democrat elected to statewide office in Utah, and many lawmakers are upset at what they see as her less-than-vigorous defense of Utah's laws restricting abortion.

"A lightning-rod issue like abortion tends to get more attention than it should and it propels movements like Rep. Harward's bill," DePaulis said. "It also tends to detract from our role to protect the public interest."

Last legislative session, Rep. Evan Olsen, R-Cache County, suggested a constitutional amendment making the attorney general's position appointed. Harward's proposal is different inasmuch as an attorney general would continue to be elected, but his or her role would be restricted solely to criminal matters.

Such a bifurcated system, DePaulis said, would "draw a line of demarcation that could encourage an elected attorney general to go after government officials." After all, government officials would no longer be clients.

Does that mean under the current system Graham's office does not pursue wrongdoing by state officials? DePaulis maintains the current system is preventative, that staff attorneys work closely with state agencies to keep them in compliance with laws and out of court, preventing costly litigation.

Graham will make her case before the Consitutional Revision Commission on April 7.