Committee discusses possible change to attorney general selection

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SALT LAKE CITY - On Wednesday, legislators discussed a possible change to the way the Utah Attorney General is selected.

Competing views of the role of a legislative committee collided on Utah's Capital Hill Wednesday as Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who also serves as the Utah Democratic Party Chair, got into a verbal scuffle with Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Utah County, who serves the Senate co-chair of the Government Operations Interim Committee.

"I would hope that we can begin to tear away this code of silence about John Swallow and this situation as it affects policy in our state," said Dabakis.

"Senator Dabakis, we as senators may be asked to address these issues and articles of impeachment so it would not be appropriate for us to be holding a hearing ahead of time," Dayton responded.

The committee was discussing a possible change to the Utah State Constitution to make the attorney general an appointed rather than an elected position.

The issue has arisen in recent months as allegations have flown at Attorney General John Swallow regarding campaign fundraising, election candidate filings and his relationships with indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson and convicted businessman Marc Jenson.

Senator Todd Weiler, R-Davis County, brought the idea to the committee for discussion. He suggested lawmakers consider a state constitutional amendment making the attorney general a position appointed by legislators themselves, a policy currently only used in New Hampshire. Five other states have the governor appoint and attorney general and one, Tennessee, has the attorney general appointed by the state Supreme Court.

While Dabakis' comments led to the most fireworks, Weiler leveled the strongest direct critique of the attorney general in the meeting. He compared the $23,000 raised by state treasurer Richard Ellis to hold his statewide seat to the "more than $1.5 million" raised by Swallow.

"I can't reconcile that unless the donors are expecting maybe that that person could offer something in return," Weiler said.

John Swallow was not present at the hearing, but Brian Tarbett, his general counsel, was, and Tarbett defended his boss.

"People donate to politicians throughout federal and state. I can't comment on why they donate. The important function of the attorney general is an oath to the constitution and to the statutes," Tarbett said.