Lawmaker eyes changing the office of Utah Attorney General

Oct 11, 2023, 9:00 PM | Updated: Oct 12, 2023, 3:46 pm

Utah state Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork wants to change how the Utah Attorney General is chosen...

FILE: Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork speaks during a Senate Education Committee in Jan. 2022. McKell wants to change how the Utah Attorney General is chosen. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include a statement from Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes 

SALT LAKE CITY  — A Utah lawmaker is considering running legislation to eventually make the office of the Utah Attorney General an appointed position, instead of an elected position.

The proposition requires an amendment to the Utah Constitution. This means lawmakers would have to pass legislation and then place the idea on a General Election ballot for Utah voters to decide.

Sen. Mike McKell sent a survey to his constituents (images below), trying to get their pulse on a potential change to the office of the Utah Attorney General. He told KSL NewsRadio he’s considering the legislation for 2024 in order to put the question to voters on the ballot in 2028.

“I think we should have that discussion,” McKell said. “If you were to appoint that position you take the funding, the campaign dollars out of the office,” he said.

Sen. Mike McKell is gauging his constituents' opinion about making the office of Utah Attorney General an an appointed, instead of elected, office.

Sen. Mike McKell is gauging his constituents' opinion about making the office of Utah Attorney General an an appointed, instead of elected, office.

(McKell email about Utah Attorney General sent to constituents)

The suggestion comes as current Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is caught up in questions over his long-time relationship with Tim Ballard. Ballard, the founder and former CEO of Operation Underground Railroad is facing two civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual misconduct and claims of misusing donor funds.

Reyes provided a statement to KSL NewsRadio about the proposed change to the office.

“There is a reason 43 states elect an attorney general who can champion the rights of the People and defend their liberties without the permission of the governor, legislature or any other official. Appointed AGs can’t exercise independent discretion or decision making and they become just an extension of the governor or whomever appoints them. While the AG looks to collaborate with other officeholders, he or she needs the autonomy to be responsive to the People of the State and stand up for them without interference.”

“As a legislative official, I have become increasingly concerned with the attorney general’s office and its actions,” McKell wrote to his constituents when asking for their feedback. 

 But McKell said that even before the current Reyes situation, there were problems. He cited the scandals with former Utah AG’s John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff.

“[Making the position appointed] was a recommendation we looked at [after the Swallow situation], we really didn’t spend time vetting it at that time,” McKell said. “I think this is something we probably should have done a long time ago.” 

Swallow, Shurtleff history as Utah Attorney General

McKell was a new member of Utah’s House when John Swallow was accused of a pay-to-play scheme. That accusation came after then-attorney-general Mark Shurtleff, a three-term attorney general, was arrested in 2014. He was charged with obstructing justice as well as accepting improper gifts.

Shurtleff pleaded not guilty to the charges and denied any wrongdoing. Swallow’s case went to trial, where a jury acquitted him of bribery. The Utah legislature paid out a $1.5 million settlement for Swallow.

McKell said he believes the change has some support from the legislature.

“As I talk to my colleagues … I think there’s support to have a more comprehensive conversation,” McKell said.

“Does that mean we change some of the ethical rules?  … (changing) campaign finance? Does that mean we appoint that position? I think there’s a willingness and an eagerness to have that conversation.”

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

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Lawmaker eyes changing the office of Utah Attorney General