Should the Utah A.G. be appointed rather than elected? Reyes’ relationship with Tim Ballard prompts discussion
‘When I see what’s happening now and what I view as potential conflicts of interest, I’m concerned,’ lawmaker says
Should Utah join the other seven states where the attorney general is appointed, rather than elected?
As Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes continues to face scrutiny for his relationship with embattled anti-trafficking activist Tim Ballard, some lawmakers are starting to consider the idea.
“I’ve been concerned about the attorney general’s office for a long time. When I see what’s happening now and what I view as potential conflicts of interest, I’m concerned,” said Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork.
McKell told the Deseret News he plans to open a bill file this upcoming session — he’s open to ideas, but would like to see the process require appointment by the governor, with consent from the entire legislature.
That change would require a constitutional amendment. The resolution would need a two-thirds vote from the legislature, then the amendment would go before Utah voters during a general election. McKell acknowledged that’s a big lift, but said he’s surprised by the support from his colleagues on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, said he would like to see an effort to “enhance the accountability of the AG’s office.”
“Whether the proposal amounts to a path towards removal from office or a transition to an appointed position with legislative oversight, changes are needed to restore faith in the state’s highest law enforcement officer,” Blouin said via text on Friday.
Both of Reyes’ predecessors, Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow, were charged with multiple felonies. Shurtleff was charged with bribery and accepting gifts, but those charges were later dropped. And Swallow was accused, along with Shurtleff, of extorting money and favors from a wealthy businessman who had reached a plea deal with the office. He was acquitted at trial.
“Given Utah’s track record with electing Attorneys General who have trouble following the very laws they are sworn to uphold, we must look at other alternatives to ensure that the credibility and effectiveness of the office is upheld,” Blouin said.
In a statement, Reyes’ office pushed back on the idea, arguing the attorney general would lose autonomy if it were no longer an elected position.
“Appointed AGs can’t exercise independent discretion or decision making and they become just an extension of the governor or whomever appoints them,” the statement reads, pointing to the 43 other states that elect the attorney general.
In Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Wyoming, the attorney general is appointed by the governor; in Maine, the state Legislature chooses the attorney general; in Tennessee, the decision falls to the state Supreme Court.
“While the AG looks to collaborate with other officeholders, he or she needs autonomy to be responsive to the People of the State and stand up for them without interference. AG Reyes has been able to restore the good name of the UAGO with accountability, transparency and expectations for the highest quality of legal work,” the office said.
McKell, an attorney, took issue with that sentiment.
“The client is the state of Utah,” he said. “And I’m really troubled when the response from the Attorney General’s Office is that the attorney general needs to be independent of the actual client. I don’t get to be independent of my client. ... I think that raises serious ethical concerns.”
McKell added that the campaign dollars flowing into the attorney general’s office is concerning — and the office lacks the checks and balances that other powerful positions in Utah politics have.
According to the attorney general office’s statement, Reyes runs the office like a law firm, “winning milestone cases for the state, defending the laws passed by the legislature, and protecting businesses, children, and all Utahns from crime and federal overreach.”
“This is not the first time the question has been considered, nor will it be the last. The disagreements at play will change but the bedrock principles remain the same,” the statement reads.
Reyes and Ballard, the former CEO of Operation Underground Railroad and the inspiration behind the summer movie “The Sound of Freedom,” have been friends for years. Reyes accompanied Operation Underground Railroad on an operation in Colombia in 2014, and has touted his involvement with the group since.
Ballard now faces two separate lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault, and was the subject of a now closed investigation conducted by the Davis County Attorney’s Office, which found the organization used a psychic to gather information and exaggerated its claims of rescue operations.
The most recent complaint, filed on Wednesday, claims Reyes gave “Ballard the cover of the top law enforcement officer in the State of Utah to carry out his purposes, including the COUPLES RUSE, even while consumer complaints and investigations were pouring into his office regarding the improprieties of OUR and Ballard.”
In a statement, Reyes’ office said he has “no knowledge of how or if his name or title may have been used to add credibility to the misconduct alleged in the complaint.”
“Further more, any insinuation or allegation that the Utah AG or (his office) ‘killed,’ ‘quashed,’ or ‘shut down’ the Davis County Attorney’s investigation is equally without basis in fact,” the statement reads.