ST. GEORGE — Nine lawmakers have been selected by House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart to serve on the Special Investigative Committee charged to look into allegations surrounding Attorney General John Swallow. And, at Wednesday’s Special Session of the Legislature, further provisions were amended into the House Resolution authorizing the investigation.
Swallow has been accused of wrongdoing on several fronts, originating with accusations that he helped orchestrate bribery of U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid to eliminate action by the Federal Trade Connection against Utah businessman Jeremy Johnson, and other misconduct leading up to the unprecedented House Special Investigative Committee.
Swallow has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
The first Special Session of Utah’s Legislature was held Wednesday, during which the House and Senate made technical changes to the investigative committee’s powers of subpoena and ability to offer immunity to witnesses; they also approved the committee’s power to exempt the committee from some open records and public meeting laws.
Among the changes to the original House resolution were provisions for witness interviews, investigation strategy or anything else determined to interfere with the investigation if made public, to be exempted from the public record.
The committee may also now vote to close meetings in order to obtain legal advice or to hold discussions or question witnesses when conducting those activities as doing so openly could interfere with “the effectiveness” of their investigation or a criminal investigation.
House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart’s request to hire out-of-state special counsel or private investigators was also approved.
Late Wednesday evening Lockhart announced Republican Rep. Lowry Snow, an attorney from St. George and former president of the Utah State Bar, will chair the special committee.
The special committee will consist of five Republicans and four Democrats.
House Majority Leader Brad Dee; Rep. James Dunnigan of Taylorsville; Rep. Mike McKell of Spanish Fork; and Rep. Lee Perry of Perry.
House Minority Leader Jennifer Seeling; Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck of Salt Lake City; Rep. Susan Duckworth of Magna; and Rep. Lynn Hemingway of Salt Lake City.
Who’s who in the voting?
The resolution for the Special Investigative Committee was voted for by the House on July 3 in an overwhelming 69-3 affirmative vote and Lockhart began seeking members.
Yea votes for the resolution from representatives now placed on the special committee came from Dee, Seeling, Snow, Dunnigan, McKell, Perry, Duckworth and Hemingway.
Chavez-Houck was either absent or did not vote on the resolution.
Not wanting to leave the investigation of Swallow up to Republicans to investigate their own party, Democrats pushed for equal representation on the committee.
“I’m pleased that the House decided to move forward with an investigation of John Swallow,” Dorothy Engelman, chair of the Washington County Democratic Party, said one week ago in an email. “However, the only way it will truly be objective is if neither party has a majority on the committee.”
In an email, Jim Dabakis, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, expressed his opinion on the committee member selection:
The committee approved by the Legislature today to investigate the Swallow situation is not a 5-5 committee, as suggested by Democrats and many fair-minded folks across the state.
We are deeply disappointed that the GOP has turned the Swallow investigation into a partisan matter. By throwing away the precedent that Utah legislative ethics probes are non-partisan and balanced, the GOP has used its super majority to assure that the investigation into the GOP attorney general would be controlled by the GOP insiders. It is a sad day for Utah, and it is a terrible idea – one that could cause Utahns to lose faith in their government’s ability to police itself.
The changes in the decision in practice implies, Dabakis said, that “the GOP chair will control who will be called as witnesses, who will get immunity for their testimony, the scope of the investigation, and when the doors to the investigation will be closed to the public.”
“It seems clear that the Republican super majority is more interested in keeping their control than in restoring the sense of fairness and integrity that has obviously been lacking,” Dabakis said. “This partisan committee, and how it was made up, can give Utahns little confidence that all the members of the legislature consider their constitutional duties ahead of their political consideration.”
Dabakis said he hopes to be surprised by the GOP leadership of the committee and offers up his support.
Not all Democrats share Dabakis’ disapproval of the bipartisan makeup.
“I think the 5-4 split is fair,” Seeling, the leading Democrat in the House, said. “I think that it helps balance out the variable of political party and helps us get through that perception to the real issues at hand.”
There is consensus from Republican leaders on the fairness of the 5-4 party representation on the committee. In short, given the greater disparity in Republican to Democratic representation in the House, they feel the 5-4 ratio is generous and representative of the people.
Todd Jones, Washington County Republican Party Treasurer, wrote St. George News in an email:
Considering that Republicans control the House 81 percent to 19 percent and considering the fact that Democrats hold 4 of the 9 seats on the Special House Investigative Committee, I think they got more than fair representation. In addition, with Representative Lowry Snow as the chair, both parties will find that all the citizens of Utah will be rightly served through this investigative committee. Under Representative Snow, I have full confidence that the committee will function in the proper manner, investigate the facts and recommend appropriate action. I commend Speaker Lockhart and all others involved as the process moves forward deliberately and cautiously.
“I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Jones,” said Willie Billings, vice chair of Utah’s Republican party and former chair of the Washington County Republican Party. “The reason the vast majority is Republican is because they are based on voting which represents the will of the people. They represent the values and the character of the people of Utah therefore they should be doing the investigation.”
“Our sunshine caucus is well represented by Snow and he will be fair and with his vast experience he will investigate thoroughly,” Billings said.
Washington County Republican Party’s vice chair, LaRene Cox, agreed. “In my opinion, the committee should be representative and proportional of the legislature and Utah’s voters,” she said and also pointed to the composite of the House itself. “According to the 2013 Utah House of Representatives Roster, there are 61 Republicans to 14 Democrats. I believe that Speaker Lockhart was more than fair to the Democrats in choosing a 5 to 4 ratio.”
Cox also said she is confident that Washington County District 74’s representative, Snow, will conduct a competent and impartial investigation.
Both Dee and Lockhart said several times Wednesday that they intend to keep as much of the process open to the public as possible.
No timeline has been announced yet for when the committee will start meeting.
The committee is required to deliver factual reports to the House, but cannot make recommendations for action, such as impeachment.
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