OPINION – While it is true that people charged with a crime are innocent until proven guilty, it is also true that where there’s smoke there’s fire, which is why it would be a fool’s bet to wager that former Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow will be exonerated of the 23 charges filed against them this morning by the State of Utah.
It is sad, in the greater sense, that we are not surprised when our elected officials are charged with major crimes, and let’s not kid ourselves, these are major criminal charges that could result in lengthy prison sentences for both men.
An investigation led to charges ranging from accepting bribes to obstruction of justice, centering on alleged abuses of power that took place when St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson says Shurtleff and Swallow tried to shake him down for cash and favors after he was charged with bilking the public in a faux “get-rich-quick” scheme.
Johnson claims he funneled cash to the men in an attempt to buy influence from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to get the federal charges dismissed; that he allowed them use of his private plane on several occasions for promised favors; and that he allowed them access to his high-priced sports car and houseboat.
During that time, a judge placed a gag order on Johnson, barring him from any further discussion on his relationship with Shurtleff and Swallow, who both claimed the allegations and investigations were politically motivated. The range and depth of the charges filed against these men, however, clearly indicate that this was not a political witch hunt, so this is not a time for partisan grandstanding, bickering, or finger pointing.
I could arrange a litany of why I was displeased with both Shurtleff and Swallow during their time in office. But that is not relevant to what happened today and, rightfully so, would be subject to criticism as political bias. This is, instead, a moment to reflect upon the alleged violation of the public trust and make no mistake about it, this was a violation of the public trust.
There must be an elevation of the standards we set for those who we elect to office to the extent that even the appearance of corruption or duplicitous behavior is enough to demand an investigation. There is simply too much at stake.
Add to that the fact that these charges were levelled at successive generations of the state’s top law enforcement office and you can see the proportions of how this will impact the level of confidence the people will have in those who it blesses with votes in the future. The only good news here is that despite their political influence, money, and stature in the community, Shurtleff and Swallow were still, in the end, subject to a justice system they once swore to uphold.
Gov. Gary Herbert said as much in a statement he issued shortly after Shurtleff and Swallow were arrested.
“This is a sad day for Utah,” he said. “The entire situation, regardless of how the legal process plays out, is a black eye for our state. While we respect the rule of law and due process, this serves as a reminder that nobody is above the law and, if anything, public servants must be held to a higher standard.”
Herbert is correct. This will do nothing to improve the state’s image, which is suspect in many corners right now. Hopefully, however, it will salvage some degree of respect as the state presents its case and justice is served.
As a nation, we have endured our share of political scandals and criminal activity, enough to shake the faith of the voting public in the system and those we elect to serve it.
These charges, unfortunately, come at a time when the American public’s confidence in its elected officials is at an all-time low. Whether it’s the White House, Congress, the state, county, or municipal level, we are not happy. We see a system that while not broken, has been severely damaged. We’re angry on a number of fronts, dissatisfied with what we see taking place, whether we come from the left, right, or indecisive center, and feel helpless.
Perhaps the silver lining in all of this is that at some point, karma injects itself into the situation and accountability comes to the fore, giving us some glimmer of hope that the system can repair itself, given time, patience, and tenacity.
Perhaps it will also open our eyes and force us to take a better look at who we elect to office and base our decisions on who would best represent all of our interests with integrity, vigor, and fairness instead of blindly giving our vote to a particular political party.
Perhaps it will encourage men and women dedicated to the public good to seek elected office.
But, will we?
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
- Swallow, Shurtleff arrested on multiple felony counts related to alleged corruption
- Shurtleff claims ‘horrific police abuse,’ DPS says proper procedure followed
- House committee releases Swallow report; names of Sens. Lee, Reid appear in county attorneys’ investigation
- House probe into former Attorney General John Swallow releases findings
- Swallow resigns, says Utah House drove him from office