SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the Utah House will investigate embattled Attorney General John Swallow outside of the impeachment process, a decision made Wednesday by the majority GOP after three hours of occasionally heated discussion.
An unprecedented special session of the House to create an investigative committee to look into whether Swallow’s situation is hurting the public trust in the attorney general’s office is expected to be called in the coming weeks.
The makeup of the committee and the cost of investigating Swallow are yet to be determined, but House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, asked the caucus, “Can we put a price on the public trust? I think you all need to think about that.”
Swallow, the subject of federal, state and local investigations into multiple allegations since taking office in January, praised the decision of his fellow Republicans, who hold a 61-14 majority in the House.
“I think they got it right today where they decided it wasn’t time yet to start any serious discussion about impeachment. They simply need answers,” the attorney general said, adding he looked forward to “opening up my office.”
Swallow, who faced a barrage of reporters outside his office, said again he would not resign and that he believed he would be exonerated.
“I see this as a first important step toward restoring public trust,” the attorney general said.
Earlier Wednesday, Swallow met with members of the House's conservative caucus and warned them that a legislative investigation might become "hyper-politicized" and could become a political feeding frenzy.
On Monday, a new poll from the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy found that 71.5 percent Utahns wanted to see impeachment proceedings started against Swallow.
However, House leaders indicated there may not have been support in the GOP caucus to begin the impeachment process, which would have allowed a similar investigation before any decisions were made on impeachment.
But there was clearly interest in investigating Swallow, who has been accused of being part of an effort to shakedown a now-imprisoned swindler and other wrongdoing while raising money for former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and serving as his chief deputy.
Republican representatives voted down an attempt to delay action on a motion to call the special session needed to create a committee to handle the investigation outside the impeachment process.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, wanted to wait until September or October, citing concerns about cost and duplicating the investigations already underway. Swallow had told conservative House members at a meeting Wednesday morning he believes the federal investigation would be wrapped up by then.
But Rep. Spencer Cox, R-Fairview, one of the first lawmakers to bring up the possibility of impeachment proceedings, accused the caucus of “shirking our constitutional responsibilities.”
Calling the proposed committee “a pretend impeachment committee,” Cox said he was embarrassed by representatives who complain about federal government control but are willing to let Washington handle the investigation.
Cox said he was not going to let the federal government “restore the public trust.”
Much of the discussion at the caucus focused on legal issues, including the definition of impeachable offenses, described as high crimes, misdemeanors and malfeasance in office.
Legislative attorneys told the representatives repeatedly that most of the process was up to them to determine. Legislative general counsel John Fellows advised that investigating as part of an impeachment process offered special protection by the courts.
But Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, made the motion to investigate outside the impeachment process. Lawmakers have privately expressed concerns about starting that process without being confident it would lead to action against Swallow.
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, told reporters Wednesday’s decision “is not a compromise.” He had said Tuesday an investigation into Swallow was “highly likely.”
The decision does not preclude future impeachment proceedings against Swallow. Under the Utah Constitution, it’s up to the House to impeach officials and the Senate to decide whether they remain in office.
Lockhart said she plans to convene the special session before next month’s interim meetings on July 17 and said there will be Democrats appointed. Dee said the state will likely hire both an outside attorney and an investigator to assist the committee.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, sat through the House Republican caucus and said afterward Democrats should have been included in the discussion. Democrats in both the House and Senate have already called for an investigation into Swallow, and King has prepared an impeachment resolution.
"That's frustrating to me," King said of the minority party's exclusion. "I'm generally happy with the direction, but there's some things we could have said and done that would have made a difference."
Lockhart, who told reporters she had the power to call lawmakers into a special session to set up the committee even without Wednesday’s vote, said the GOP decision was in line with the Democrats’ position.
Gov. Gary Herbert said “the Legislature is handling this exactly right."
“This is an unfortunate situation in our state’s history. This is unprecedented,” Herbert said. “It’s historical. I think the Legislature needs to be very cautious, methodical, careful as they go about this evaluation, which I believe they are doing.”
Last week, the governor told reporters that if the attorney general worked for him, he’d be gone and said he was “increasingly alarmed with the stuff that’s bubbling out, what I consider ethical challenges, ethical violations.”