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$1.5 million settlement for former AG John Swallow approved by Utah Legislature

Lawmakers also allow early delivery before sale of heavier beer before sales begin Nov. 1

John Swallow
FILE - Former Utah Attorney General John Swallow initially wanted “north of $2 million” from the state to pay his legal costs after being acquitted of corruption charges, but settled for $1.5 million, lawmakers were told shortly before the start of a special session of the Utah Legislature where the deal was set to be considered.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A $1.5 million settlement for former Utah Attorney General John Swallow was approved in a special session of the Utah Legislature Monday, despite bellyaching from a few lawmakers.

A resolution approving the settlement, HJR101, passed the House 62-4. The Senate backed the resolution without debate, 25-0.

“I wish there was a way around it,” said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, on the House floor. King, however, offered support for the resolution, noting that lawmakers have been told Swallow could seek “hundreds of thousands of dollars more” if the settlement wasn’t approved.

The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, said not approving the settlement could lead to “escalating costs,” so it’s likely best that lawmakers “basically cut our losses.”

Swallow resigned as attorney general in 2013 after less than a year in office amid an investigation by the Utah Legislature. The following March, a special House committee issued a report that said Swallow “hung a veritable ‘for sale’ sign” on his office door.

But Swallow was acquitted of charges related to what state prosecutors alleged was a conspiracy with former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to extort money and favors from a wealthy businessman who had reached a plea deal with the office.

In a statement, Swallow said Monday he “will always cherish the time I was fortunate enough to serve as the attorney general and thank those who made today possible.”

He also referenced the state law dealing with reimbursing public officials for their legal costs.

“The Reimbursement Act is designed for this very situation — the exoneration of a wrongly charged public official. This vote closes a chapter and reminds us of the importance of not judging too quickly what we hear about others,” Swallow said.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said that law may need to be revisited. Wilson said he was proud of the Legislature’s investigation into Swallow and that the findings of lawmakers continue to “stand on their own,” and are “troubling” in terms of the alleged behavior.

“The right thing to do then was to do what we did, which was to have very high expectations of elected officials,” the speaker said.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, talks about a $1.5 million settlement for former Utah Attorney General John Swallow that was approved in a special session of the Utah Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, talks about a $1.5 million settlement for former Utah Attorney General John Swallow that was approved in a special session of the Utah Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Swallow initially wanted “north of $2 million” from the state to pay his legal costs after being acquitted of corruption charges, but settled for $1.5 million, lawmakers were told during a meeting of the Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee held before the special session.

The settlement deal signed Friday afternoon releases the state from any future claims by Swallow, who valued those claims at an additional $400,000, according to David Wolf, director of constitutional defense and special litigation for the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

Wolf told the legislative leaders who serve on the committee that the attorney general’s office determined Swallow had spent $715,000 on legal costs, while the law firms involved in his case claimed they were still owed a total of about $1.7 million.

That amount does not include some $200,000 charged by the lawyers Swallow hired in his civil lawsuit to recover his legal fees, Wolf said, noting those lawyers are charging rates of between $450 and $500 an hour. He said the mounting costs helped drive the settlement.

The committee backed the deal.

“Sometimes it’s better just to rip the Band-Aid off and be done with it,” Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, later told the Senate Democratic caucus about the settlement. He said it was better at this point for the state to pay the settlement.

Prior to Monday’s special session, House Democrats in a caucus meeting expressed heartburn over the settlement agreement.

In that meeting, Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Salt Lake City, told her fellow House Democrats she was “really uncomfortable” with the settlement payment to Swallow, noting she spent over an hour talking to a constituent who was a chief investigator in the case.

“He’s pretty much raging about us doing this because he knows a lot more about this than the rest of us about how this went down,” she said. “It may be the pragmatic thing to do, but after talking to him, it’s not the right thing to do.”

But John Fellows, legislative general counsel, briefed Democrats on the Swallow settlement, explaining his recommendation that they support it, noting that any failure to finalize the settlement would likely only result in more litigation and cost to taxpayers.

“If this goes back to litigation, you’ll pay more,” Fellows said.

King told his Democratic colleagues, “The folks who put this together have been strategic and tactical,” noting the appropriation for both the Swallow settlement and money for the census — which Democrats have sought since last legislative session — are included in the same appropriations legislation, HB1001.

King said Democrats could try to separate the two appropriations, but doing so could “endanger” the money for the census.

“And it’s not going to be looked at kindly by our colleagues on the other side of the aisle,” King warned. “They put these together for a reason.”

There was ultimately no attempt on the House floor to separate the two appropriations for both the Swallow settlement and $1 million for the 2020 census, which Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, previously pitched to help ensure an accurate census count in a year when the survey will be held largely online. State demographers have indicated that could create risk that populations who don’t have internet access won’t be counted.

Rep. Susan Duckworth D-Magna, said on the House floor she believed the two appropriations should have been considered separately. In the Democratic caucus, she used stronger words.

“I’m not happy about it being rolled in with the census,” she said. She and other Democrats expressed frustration with the “game playing,” but ultimately the two appropriations sailed easily through the House.

Wilson said the appropriations were combined into a single bill for simplicity’s sake.

The appropriations passed the Senate 26-0, with Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, saying he wished the settlement with Swallow wasn’t seen as “giving” the former attorney general money because the funds were being used to pay his legal fees.

The Utah Legislature also approved several other bills in Monday night’s special session, including changes to state liquor law regarding the transportation and storage of heavier beer after lawmakers earlier this year raised the allowable alcohol content for beer sold in grocery and convenience stores from 3.2% by weight to 4%.

The bill lawmakers approved allows retailers to stock the stronger beer a week before the Nov. 1 effective date when it can be sold, rather than make deliveries after midnight on Halloween, possibly delaying sales in rural communities.

There was little controversy over the bill, save for pushback from Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who argued the aim of the bill was only to help alcohol vendors by not delaying sales.

“This is just being pushed through by the alcohol profiteers who want a little bit more money,” Thurston said.

Bill sponsor Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, said Thurston’s characterization was “a little bit short of reality” because the bill “protects” small retailers in, for example, rural areas. He said the aim of the bill was to create a “level playing field” for all retailers in Utah.

The beer bill passed the House 64-2 and the Senate 25-0.

Lawmakers also approved changes to Utah election law regarding the date of the 2020 primary after political parties asked to move the date from the fourth Tuesday in June to the last Tuesday in the month, June 30, because of the dates that Easter and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ general conference fall on.

The extra time will allow the political parties time to hold caucus meetings as well as county and state conventions.