At a minimum, the prosecution of former Utah Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow for allegedly allowing money to influence their decisions may raise serious questions about their commitment to ethics and sound judgment.
Shurtleff dismissed the prosecution against him as being politically motivated. However, the prosecution team is bipartisan: Sim Gill is a Democrat and Troy Rawlings is a Republican. The House panel that investigated them also was bipartisan.
If Shurtleff’s assertion is to be believed, then Democrat Gill apparently somehow browbeat Republican Rawlings into submission in order to get his way. But in a state where many complain that Republican influence is disproportionate, one wonders why it apparently failed in this case.
Shurtleff and Swallow deserve their day in court, and, like anyone else, they’re innocent until proven guilty. Judgment as to the possible criminality of their actions should be withheld until all the evidence has been heard and a verdict has been rendered.
Still, if it never even occurred to them that their conduct might be questionable (let alone illegal), they seem (1) incredibly naive and unlucky, or (2) perhaps not as intelligent as one might expect of those who hold the office of Attorney General, or (3) some combination of the two.
While no one should be convicted in a court of law based on guilt by association, I was always taught that if I associate extensively with people who do certain things, I should not be surprised if those who observed those relationships also associate me (fairly or not) with what those people do.
Even if Swallow’s and Shurtleff’s actions are not proven to be criminal, they have done no favors for the reputation of the state of Utah, for that of its people, for that of the Attorney General’s Office, or for that of the legal profession.
Perhaps part of Shurtleff’s and Swallow’s defense will be that they operated in a massive “gray area.” Ideally, however, one charged with enforcing the laws should strive, not only to avoid actual illegality, but also to avoid even the very appearance of impropriety.
Excerpts from the preamble to the professional rules governing Utah lawyers are revealing. Given the law’s immense power, those who wield it are especially charged with doing so responsibly.
For example, the preamble says that a “lawyer is a representative of clients [and is] an officer of the legal system[,] and [has] special responsibility for the quality of justice.” One wonders how seriously they took this responsibility.
Another excerpt says, “A lawyer’s conduct should conform to the requirements of the law” in both his professional and personal affairs. Illegal or not, the very fact that such a question exists about their actions also seems to prompt doubts about how seriously they took this responsibility.
Another excerpt says, “[A] lawyer” — let alone the state’s top law enforcement officer — “should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system.” It doesn’t matter if one holds high office or not; he is as accountable to the law as anyone else who violates it.
Hard not to conclude that Shurtleff and Swallow are guilty, at the very least, of bad judgment. Time will tell if there’s more to it than that.
Ken K. Gourdin, Tooele, is a certified paralegal.