The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.
Is John Swallow a bad man? I really don’t know. I’ve shaken his hand, but we’ve never spent more than a few minutes together and I don’t know much about him beyond the news reports that have circulated so widely since he took office this past January. But I’ve certainly been actively involved, as the Executive Director of the Alliance for a Better UTAH, in holding John Swallow accountable for being an ethical leader.
That’s because Utah leaders need to be held accountable to the people they represent–the citizens of Utah–and not just their donors.
Accountability really requires three things: 1) a thoughtful, objective and informed media, 2) good government organizations like ours who can give weight to media reports, and work to engage and inform the public, and 3) a public that is not only responsive to how their elected leaders behave, but willing to step outside of their normal party comfort zones and look at candidates in a truly objective way. Those three elements are the basic ingredients of accountability. So, let’s talk about how those three things worked together to bring accountability to the Attorney General’s Office.
The first ingredient for holding the Attorney General accountable were the good efforts of the news media in this state. Principle among those players are Salt Lake Tribune reporters Robert Gehrke and Tom Harvey and City Weekly reporter Eric Peterson. They have been relentless in their efforts to expose possible corruption in the Attorney General’s office. Some people would call them ruthless. But, like good reporters, they went after the facts. The recently released Lt. Governor’s report confirms almost everything that they wrote. In some cases, the Lt. Governor’s report is even more damning than what the media reports would suggest.
The second ingredient is good government groups like ours. Our role is especially important when power is unbalanced, like it is in our state. In Utah, the majority party wields enormous influence. The minority party can’t do much to check it, though they do their best. The state legislature was originally unwilling to do much, other than wring their hands, over the allegations that were coming out about John Swallow. That meant it fell to us. After researching the information provided by various news reports, and reviewing election law code, we filed a petition with the Lt. Governor’s office, alleging that John Swallow broke state election law. As it turns out, a special investigator found sufficient evidence to recommend that Swallow be charged with 5 counts of election law violations. These pending charges proved to be the final tipping point and last Thursday, Swallow finally resigned. Despite his claims of innocence and undue financial hardship, the timing of his resignation makes his motivations clear.
The third ingredient is an engaged populace. Unfortunately in Utah, this ingredient is becoming more and more scarce. However, it is arguably the most important. Journalists can report, and organizations like ours can monitor, but the people of Utah must continue to show outrage at the bad behavior of their elected officials. And there was plenty of outrage. At one point, 78 percent of Utahns thought Swallow should resign, while 72 percent thought the state house should begin impeachment proceedings. That public outrage drove journalists to continue covering John Swallow’s actions, and it gave a mandate to organizations like ours to keep monitoring Swallow’s behavior.
Accountability is difficult to obtain in a state like ours where the majority party engages in mostly self-policing. We don’t have a lot of balance. But when the media, good government organizations and the public come together, we can hold our elected leaders accountable. John Swallow isn’t the first example, and he won’t be the last.