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Utah attorney general announces resignation in wake of bribery probe

Utah Attorney General John Swallow speaks during a news conference on Thursday, in Salt Lake City.
Utah Attorney General John Swallow speaks during a news conference on Thursday, in Salt Lake City.Rick Bowmer / AP

Utah Attorney General John Swallow announced Thursday that he is stepping down amid multiple investigations of bribery and misconduct that have hounded him ever since he took office at the beginning of the year.

Swallow discussed his resignation at a news conference as he vigorously denied breaking any laws and said the toll of the investigations had become too much for him and his family.

"Now is the time for the madness to stop and for the state to move forward. The toll on my family, the toll on my office and the toll on our finances has been too much. It is time for it to stop."

It marked a stunning fall for a politician who was elected with nearly two-thirds of the vote one year ago and seemingly had a bright political future. But within his first week in office, accusations surfaced that the Republican engaged in questionable financial dealings with a businessman under federal investigation for fraud.

The allegations set off a series of investigations and calls for his resignation that were unusual in the squeaky clean world of Utah politics.

Jeff Peterson, the executive director of the Utah Republican Party, said the party's central committee would recommend three candidates to replace Swallow. Republican Gov. Gary Herbert would then choose one of those candidates to fill the office until a special election could be held next November.

Swallow's resignation is the first time a Utah attorney general has stepped down midterm, said Tim Chambless of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. The state has seen two governors resign, but both left for other political posts and not in scandal, he said.

"Under these circumstances, this is unprecedented in Utah political history," Chambless said.

Swallow has been accused of arranging a bribery plot and trading offers of protection in return for favors from several businessmen. He is also accused of failing to disclose business interests on campaign forms and violating attorney-client privilege while serving in the attorney general's office. He has been or is currently being investigated by the state elections office, two county attorneys, the Utah House, the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Utah State Bar. Swallow has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

At his nearly half-hour news conference Thursday, Swallow repeatedly accused the Utah House of launching a politically driven investigation and cited his concerns about the amount of public money they were spending.

"I believe the investigation was calculated to make it very difficult for me to stay in office," he said.

Swallow didn't specify why he thought the investigation was politically driven beyond saying that House investigators were falsely accusing him of not cooperating.

He was at times defiant and even raised his voice slightly when defending himself or discussing the allegations against him. When he thanked his family and supporters and spoke of his time in office, he frequently paused between sentences and bit his lip.

"If I truly am innocent, as I claim I am," Swallow said. "Today is truly a sad day in Utah because an election has been overturned."

The scrutiny of Swallow began within days of his inauguration, when Utah businessman Jeremy Johnson accused him of arranging a plot to bribe U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. Johnson was under investigation at the time and reached out to Swallow to use his connections with Reid to make the issue go away.

Reid and Swallow both denied the allegation. Swallow said he simply connected Johnson with a Nevada payday-loan operator who could set Johnson up with lobbyists to plead his case.

Johnson said he paid Check City founder Richard Rawle $250,000. He said some of that money was later funneled to Swallow.

Legislators launched their investigation this summer. Thus far, investigators have talked with 140 witnesses and issued 15 subpoenas during the first three months of the inquiry, with the price tag nearing $1.5 million, said Rep. Jim Dunnigan, who chairs the bipartisan panel.

Dunnigan and House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart said late Thursday that the House investigation will continue, but they need to meet with their investigators to see if the scope will changed because of Swallow's resignation.

Beyond the probes by the Utah lieutenant governor's office and the Utah House, Swallow has been the subject of several other investigations.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced in September it had closed a bribery probe of Swallow and was not planning to file any charges.

Two complaints against Swallow were lodged with the Utah State Bar. One of those complains was dismissed; another is pending.

Swallow estimated he has so far spent about $300,000 of own money defending himself.

Swallow easily won election last year to succeed the retiring Mark Shurtleff. He previously served as chief deputy attorney general and directed the civil division where he oversaw lawsuits against the federal health care reform.

Swallow has previously run for office, losing in 2002 and 2004 to Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson. He was a legislator from 1997 to 2002.

The investigation could cause his election last year to be invalidated. Utah Democrats said late Thursday they would file a legal challenge over the Republican process to replace Swallow if a judge rules the election was invalid.

"If that's the case, then this is not something that should be appointed by just a few people in a back room," said Matt Lyon, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party.

Lyon said Democrats would argue an election should be held before November.