Last week, in my regular radio commentary aired throughout the state, I recommended that Utah Attorney General John Swallow resign his post as Attorney General. Sutherland Institute is in the world of politics but we try our mightiest not to be of that world – a standard hard to live up to. My recommendation seemed out of place for some people, but for me it was a natural conclusion born of Sutherland’s commitment to the integrity of Utah’s public institutions.
Everyone in politics has their own paradigm, or how they see the world of politics spinning around them. In the Swallow case, as we would expect, most people have jaded views – either Swallow is definitely guilty of something or Swallow is definitely the victim of some combination of opportunistic felons and Democratic Party operatives. Even those pundits who claim objectivity and a wait-and-see approach have somewhat confident opinions about the case of John Swallow.
I am no exception to this rule. I have an opinion, and that opinion is what led me to recommend that John Swallow resign. My only dog in this fight is Sutherland’s long-standing commitment to seek integrity in our public institutions. (I should add that I voted for John Swallow in the general election for attorney general and that I consider him a friend, even though he probably would not say the same thing about me right now – because, of course, seen through a political paradigm, friends either agree or they stay silent.
Quietly and politely, a couple of my friends have told me that I jumped the gun and was premature in my recommendation that Swallow resign – and, they add, premature mostly because they know he’s actually innocent of all accusations. But, as I mentioned in my blog post, I’m centering on the public trust for the state’s top cop and that trust is lacking, to say the least.
Having worked in Congress in the past I am well familiar with ethics charges and violations among elected officials. I know that the constitutional language of “high crimes and misdemeanors and malfeasance in office” has broad meaning – not the pharisaical literalness of crimes while in office (though actual crimes certainly apply). While I have not commented on Swallow’s possible impeachment, I can say with some degree of certainty that all three branches of government have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of our public institutions and that the public trust is the primary historic focal point (and heart) of most impeachment proceedings.
One example was Congressman Barney Frank in the early ’90s. Congressman Frank was accused of facilitating a male prostitute’s business (a man who was Congressman Frank’s homosexual lover at the time) out of his D.C. apartment. Were there crimes committed? The D.C. police department ultimately said no. But some of his congressional colleagues claimed that Frank’s actions brought disrepute upon the body and they sought his removal from Congress – three separate motions were made to punish Frank: removal, censure and reprimand. He was reprimanded for his (non-criminal) behavior.
I share these thoughts because political paradigms aren’t always the best way to address wrongdoing among elected officials. Sometimes, hopefully more often than not, public tribunals need a strong dose of the public interest – a paradigm for the common good. John Swallow might or might not be guilty of the accusations thrown his way. (I said before that I hope he is innocent.) But it’s the public trust, not the legalities of his particular case, that is of primary importance if your objective as an elected official is to maintain the public trust. I understand that right and wrong, guilt or innocence, are important to John Swallow, but only the public trust aspects ought to be important to every other elected official in the state.
One of the worst aspects of this saga is how partisan defenders of John Swallow have approached his defense – everything from claiming firsthand knowledge that he is innocent (which proof they should share with authorities, by the way) to justifying his innocence (à la Richard Nixon) because his “enemies” are out to get him to simply parroting Swallow’s attorney’s arguments.
I also share these thoughts to introduce a revealing and important infographic produced by Dave Buer, Sutherland’s Director of Communications. It’s not brief, primarily because the Swallow case is so layered and multidimensional, but it is easy to digest.
Sutherland Institute was very interested a couple of years ago when the state Legislature was discussing how to proceed with its own ethics processes. No doubt the John Swallow case will raise new concerns about ethics in government. For that reason alone we are commenting publicly about the John Swallow case; the public processes through which it journeys; and ultimately, what we can learn from it to improve the public trust in our most cherished public institutions governing a free society.
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