Inside Sources: Swallow looks back on his role in Utah’s biggest political scandal

Sep 19, 2019, 8:57 PM | Updated: Apr 13, 2020, 2:30 pm
swallow shurtleff settlement...
File Photo of former AG John Swallow courtesy of the Deseret News

Inside Source’s guest host Doug Wright weighed in on the recent development in Utah’s largest political scandal that swept up two state attorneys general.

In a special session Monday, the Utah Legislature approved a $1.5 million settlement to former state Attorney General John Swallow to pay off his legal fees after his acquittal. Swallow sat in Wednesday with Wright to talk about the slow-creep resolution of his yearslong legal case and the corruption controversy surrounding it — and what the future holds for the former officeholder.

Swallow said the settlement from lawmakers will allow him to “basically break even” on his legal bills.

Utah law allows public officials, when acquitted of criminal charges, to seek payment for attorney fees.

“Why is there still animosity on Capitol Hill that some still have. . . reluctantly coughing over the [$1.5 million settlement]?” Wright asked.

“I think it’s human nature that when you make a big investment and become convinced of something, and then it turns out that you were wrong, it’s really hard for people to recognize that they spent three or four million dollars on what I know is a witch hunt,” Swallow said.

“The report made findings that were not supported by evidence.

“In other words, they were wrong.

“At my trial, witness after witness did not say anything to support any of the conclusions of the House report or the Lieutenant Governor’s report,” Shurtleff said. “We asked ourselves: Why? What happened? And were their egos involved? And who made these findings without evidence?”

In the dramatic end to the biggest political scandal in Utah history, a jury acquitted Swallow in March 2017 on each of nine felony and misdemeanor counts during a two-week trial involving more than 40 witnesses.

“I’m very happy now to have this final case resolved, to have this payment and make everyone whole.

“I call it an exclamation point on my innocence, and now I can move on because that’s all I can do,” Swallow said.

Talking about the Swallow’s settlement Thursday on Inside Sources, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said, “An acquittal doesn’t mean there was a finding of innocence. He was not exonerated…somebody didn’t come along and say ‘You didn’t do anything wrong at all.’ The acquittal just meant the prosecutor, in that case, did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were guilty of a crime.”

The background

In November 2012, Swallow won the election for Utah’s attorney general. But he resigned in November 2013 after less than a year in office amid bribery and corruption allegations. In July 2014, he was later arrested, along with his predecessor, ex-Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, and charged with a combined 23 counts that could’ve landed each in prison for 30 years.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill that same year filed 10 felony charges against Shurtleff, who served 12 years as attorney general before making Swallow his handpicked Republican successor.

Davis County Attorney Trop Rawlings took over Shurtleff’s prosecution when his criminal case was severed from Swallow’s. Rawlings moved to dismiss the charges against Shurtleff in 2016, pointing to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that narrows the prosecution of political corruption.

What caused this case to go on for so long and be such a big deal? Wright asked Swallow.

“I think it is indicative of what is happening in our society. I believe we are casting aside the presumption of innocence,” he said. “We’re prejudging people, and we like a sensational story.

“What started as an unreal accusation made just after I was inaugurated (2012), quickly snowballed into a catastrophic situation I couldn’t manage,” Swallow said. “After 11 months, I decided to do the right thing and step aside and try to clear my name privately because there was so much attention that made it impossible for my office to function and for me to be able to survive it financially.”

Any regrets?

Looking in the rearview mirror, Wright asked Swallow, what would you have changed while in office that appeared to be problematic?

“It’s hard to know as a public servant, when meeting with constituents, who is going to have a problem and who’s not,” Swallow said. “For example, when I was doing fundraising with Jeremy Johnson; he was a hero in the Haitian earthquake. We had no idea he was doing some things that would later make him the subject of criminal charges.”

Johnson, a St. George businessman, gained acclaim for his humanitarian work in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there. The FBI investigated Swallow’s role in an alleged scheme to help the indicted Johnson avoid a lawsuit by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission). A jury convicted him in 2016 of eight counts of making false statements to a bank in connection with iWorks, his once-thriving online marketing company. Johnson is serving a federal prison sentence.

Wright asked Swallow if he has been able to make peace with those who were quick to dance on his political grave, including Gov. Gary Herbert, who called the scandal surrounding the two attorneys generals a “black eye” for the state of Utah?

“The only black eye on the state was that two former attorneys general, who are good people, were falsely charged with criminality when they hadn’t done what people said they’d done. The good news about a black eye is it heals,” Swallow said.

The $1.5 million settlement, he said, now allows him to move forward.

What does the future look like?

Besides the settlement, Wright asked, what are you doing to pay the bills?

“I’m practicing law. I have a law firm, and I am the sole practitioner,” he said. “I’m also working on a couple of books.

“I’m about 80 percent through with a book on accusations. The question people ask themselves sometimes is, so how do I survive an accusation, a false allegation?” Swallow said.

“In this day and age, an accusation can destroy somebody,” said Wright “Whether it’s true or not. The ways information can be spread, everybody and their dog sees it.”

“Who is safe out there from the impact of a false accusation that can wreck a career or destroy a family or a life?” Swallow said. A person’s reputation “is the most important legacy that they ever leave.”

“So I’m writing a book,” he said, “that will help people understand how to prevent a false accusation…or if they can’t prevent it, how to prepare for it and how to deal with it after the accusation happens.”

Swallow said he’s also working on another book about criminal justice reform.

“There are many people out there who are falsely accused and overcharged by prosecutors,” he said. “There are no consequences to the prosecutor who might intentionally misuse his office because they have what’s called unqualified immunity.

“So a prosecutor, technically, could decide he wants to destroy a person, move forward with the prosecution, and face no consequence if there is no evidence to back that [prosecutor] up.

“The threshold for moving forward with a prosecution is probable cause…if there’s someone who said you did it, that’s enough to file charges and take it all the way to a trial. That has got to change,” he said.

Last word

Wright asked Swallow how his family has held up during the long, drawn-out legal battle.

“We united through this experience, through faith, and through friendship, and we’re closer than ever,” he said. “This has been a net positive for me because it’s taught me things about myself and my family.”

Wright asked what Swallow would he would like to say to the people listening.

“I want people to know how grateful my family and I are for the opportunity we had to spend time in public service, that we love the state of Utah, we’re staying here, and we’re excited to move forward and make the greatest contribution that we’ve made to date in the future,” he said in closing the show.

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Inside Sources: Swallow looks back on his role in Utah’s biggest political scandal