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Utah attorney general candidates focus on public trust

Published September 2, 2014 10:21 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As Utah's two previous top lawmen face charges of bribery and other crimes, the candidates running to replace them as state attorney general this year each promise to repair public trust and reform the scandal-rocked office.

"It's the thing that's on the top of everybody's mind," Democratic contender Charles Stormont told The Associated Press. "They want to know, What are you going to do to make sure that can't happen again?"

Sean Reyes, his Republican opponent and the interim Utah attorney general, said he gets asked about his predecessors, "I don't even know how many times a day. There's obviously a great deal of interest."

Both candidates speak about new avenues for ethics complaints and accountability. Each has pledged to avoid campaign donations from industries that could create a conflict of interest with the attorney general's office.

John Swallow, who resigned from the office in late 2013, spent much of last year battling allegations of murky dealings with businessmen, some in trouble with regulators.

Swallow and his predecessor Mark Shurtleff were charged this summer with bribery and a host of other counts. They've denied any wrongdoing.

Reyes treads carefully when discussing the issue, saying he wants to let the bribery case against his fellow Republicans play out.

At the same time, Reyes speaks from the office of the attorney general and the campaign trail about fixing the public's broken faith in the office.

Reyes was appointed in December to hold the office until this November's election to fill the last two years of Swallow's term.

Most years, the attorney general's race is eclipsed by higher profile elections for president, the governor or U.S. senator.

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said this year's race is unusual because it involves an unelected incumbent and comes in the wake of a high profile scandal.

The scandal gives Democrats and Stormont a better-than-usual chance this year, but "on the other hand," Burbank said, "if you had to bet on somebody, you'd probably bet on Reyes to keep his position, just because he's a Republican in a remarkably Republican state."

During the eight months Reyes has been in office, he's replaced half a dozen top managers and ordered an outside investigation into Shurtleff's influence on a fraud case years ago.

Stormont says Reyes hasn't done enough, and has said the same Republicans who picked Shurtleff and Swallow "also helped bring us Sean Reyes."

Reyes said he expects such arguments but said they won't stick. "People realize very clearly that this is a totally different regime," he said.

Reyes cites his decision to ask 16 division directors to re-apply for their jobs, along with about 100 other candidates. Only one executive-level employee has remained in place from previous administrations, he said.

"Anybody who tries to make that case, that we haven't shaken things up, needs to just come and look at the before-and-after picture," he said.

Stormont, who has spent the past six years working in the civil division of the attorney general's office, said morale among his colleagues is low.

"They're incredibly frustrated at the negative press the office continues to receive," Stormont said. "And they're incredibly frustrated by some of the decisions that Sean is making."

He cites "political litigation" such as the ongoing legal defense of Utah's same-sex marriage ban for that low-morale.

Defending the ban is a waste of money, according to Stormont, who touts an endorsement from one of the gay couples who challenged the law.

As attorney general, Reyes said he has a duty to defend the law and defend Utah's right to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Though he's a conservative who was a key speaker at a traditional marriage rally earlier this year, Reyes said his personal views on the issue are irrelevant.

"To me, one of the clear cut ways to restore confidence in the office of attorney general is to make sure that the office is consistent. And that the attorney general doesn't get to pick and choose his or her cases based on their personal opinion."

Despite their contrasts, the candidates have remained relatively cordial on the campaign trial, a stark contrast from the race two years ago, a million-dollar bruising contest that carried Swallow into office.

Reyes has raised about $200,000 for the race, according to campaign finance reports. That includes $100,000 from the Republican Attorney General Association, $20,000 from medical device maker Merit Medical Systems, Inc., and $10,000 from Facebook.

Stormont has raised more than $66,000, with $10,000 of that coming from an aunt in Texas.

Voters can expect to see that cash turn into billboards, TV and radio ads in the coming months.

In October, the candidates are scheduled to appear at Brigham Young University for in a televised debate.

The two were originally scheduled to face off this past Tuesday in a debate before Salt Lake City's Rotary Club, but Reyes, citing a scheduling conflict, didn't appear.

Burbank said the October event will give Stormont a chance to go toe-to-toe with the sitting attorney general in front of a broader audience.

But for Reyes, Burbank said, "unless something goes very wrong in that debate, all he really has to do is kind of get through it and not look bad, and he ought to be fine."