The Truth About Utah Politics Is Hard To Swallow

“I weep for the liberty of my country when I see at this early day of its successful experiment that corruption has been imputed to many members of the House of Representatives, and the rights of the people have been bartered for promises of office.” —Andrew Jackson

The ongoing saga involving Attorney General John Swallow, a southern Utah businessman, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is a salacious piece of news fodder. In a nutshell, wealthy Utah businessman and philanthropist, Jeremy Johnson, is being prosecuted for large scale fraud. While under investigation, Johnson complained to Swallow that the investigators were too aggressive and sought his help. Swallow, while serving as the assistant AG under Mark Shurtleff, referred Mr. Johnson to a friend of his, Richard Rawle, who owned Check City. In doing so he was paid a $23,000 “consulting fee”. The matter allegedly expanded into an attempted $600,000 bribe of Senator Reid through lobbyists hired by Rawle. Senator Reid of course denies any involvement and the case is still under investigation. We certainly don’t know the depth of John Swallow’s involvement or lack thereof. Despite the cloud that hangs over Utah’s political processes at the moment, at least one benefit has resulted from this investigation: greater public awareness of the culture of influence peddling in Utah (and throughout the country).

Governor Gary Herbert recently indicated he would fire the attorney general if it were in his power. Of course, this has as much to do with the “cloud over the state” created by the transparency of an FBI investigation as it does the functioning of the AG’s office, which Swallow says is doing just fine. The truth is these types of activities are commonplace. In addition to using connections in government to alleviate legal pressure, such as with the Swallow allegations, other means of influencing campaigns and legislation are frequently utilized in Utah. It’s the dirty little (not-so-secret) secret that most people assume happens.

In recent years, we’ve seen numerous high-profile scandals involving politicians and private business. The most egregious and highly publicized was the Jack Abramoff scandal, which implicated dozens of White House staffers, congressional aides, congressmen, lobbyists, and their respective families and associates. Caught in this giant conspiratorial web were international aid organizations, charities, private businesses, NGOs, etc. They all knew the game and played an integral part in perpetuating it. Most funds were funneled in the form of campaign donations to both parties, through lobbyists at the behest of the entities. High priced junkets, gifts, back room deals all were used to move legislation in favor of a particular special interest. While this specific scandal was exposed and some were held accountable, the game itself did not end. I suspect the outcome will be similar in Utah. The architect, Jack Abramoff, got a few years in prison and (you guessed it) wrote a book about it, making millions more. It seems “justice” only applies to those with thinner wallets and less prominent friends.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees to each individual the right to petition government. This is a vital part of a participatory government that, in theory, sets the citizen above the public servant. The role of the elected official is, first and foremost, to protect the fundamental rights of their constituents, who are their superiors and employers. This charge is taken as an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. Unfortunately, behind the mahogany desks and under the domes of capital buildings, our public servants too often assume the position of superiors looking to fatten their wallets and secure more lucrative future employment on K Street, as “consultants” (read: lobbyists), or writing tell-all memoirs of their time in charge. There is a paucity of servant leadership in the halls of our government. This is only slightly less true in Utah than in Washington D.C.

Finding solutions to curb ethical lapses in public service has long proven an elusive goal. Numerous ethics bills are passed that target a loophole here and there, but like a strip of tape on a leaky faucet, these bills do little to stop the flow of money into politicians’ pockets. The Roman Senator Tacitus observed, “In a state where corruption abounds, laws must be very numerous.” We can make all the laws we want, but they won’t be effective absent a fundamental change in our view of government’s role in our lives. The petitioning citizen looking for special favors is sure to find a sympathetic ear unless the power of our public servants is constrained to protection of fundamental rights and nothing more. Rather than focusing so heavily on the admittedly tremendous lack of ethical judgment exhibited by an assistant attorney general allegedly accepting a consulting payment from a private party while serving in an official capacity, we ought to reexamine what we really need from our government, and strive to provide the rest for ourselves.

Presently, we are locked in a battle of competing interests which pits those who just want to be left alone and don’t ask government for much at all against those who want special favors for their pet project, paid for out of the public treasury. Many use the phrase “starve the beast” to describe the process by which we can return to a constitutionally limited government, but the truth is both parties benefit from the current arrangement and the beast is in charge. Republicans promote corporate welfare under the banner of job creation and economic development, while Democrats promote social welfare in the name of equality and charity; both attract campaign bundlers, influence peddlers, and special interests.

When the very folks who benefit from the status quo are tasked with changing it, the outlook is pretty dim. The John Swallow saga, however it results, should teach Utahns an important lesson: power corrupts. This, then, suggests the proper remedy: decentralize government to reduce power in any one person or political office, and empower people to act upon their personal responsibility. Falling short of that will produce many more Swallows in the years ahead.