Utah had a first last week when not one but two former Attorneys General were arrested and charged with a dozen crimes each.
Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow have been in the news steadily for the more than a year now so the charges came as less of a surprise and more of an “it’s about time.”
But along with the charges has come a disturbing new message–the system works. Elected officials have been quick to point to their arrests as proof of this. From Governor Herbert to Speaker Lockhart to your legislator–we’re being told to rest assured, the system works.
Let’s look at that system.
Mark Shurtleff was in office for 12 years. That means he was elected three times. Anyone involved in politics during his tenure heard rumors of his pay-to-play policy for years. During his final reelection campaign much was made of his donors, specifically very large donations from payday lenders and Shurtleff’s reluctance, as Attorney General, to look into the allegations surrounding this predatory industry. Despite damning financial disclosure records, these claims were waived off as campaign tactics.
John Swallow started his tenure under a cloud of suspicion and allegation. Well before his election he was caught on tape having phone conversations with suspected fraudsters and making promises that were clearly in violation of ethical if not legal standards. Yet, the news media shied away from coverage, elected officials looked the other way, and anyone who attempted to bring the information to light was dismissed as having political motivations.
That is not a system that works, that is a system that protects, manipulates and controls the message. It wasn’t until groups like the Alliance for a Better UTAH and dogged journalists like Robert Gehrke of the Salt Lake Tribune and Eric Peterson of City Weekly refused to give up, that elected officials started paying attention. It took bar complaints, press conferences, election violation complaints, and a constant stream of news coverage. It took the tide turning so obviously and disproportionately against both Shurtleff and Swallow, before the legislature finally agreed to investigate.
Shurtleff and Swallow hung a For Sale sign on the door of the Attorney General’s office and it took 12 years and 11 months before they were gone.
That is not a system that works.
Further, it would be foolish to believe that this legacy of unethical behavior and corruption begin and end with Shurtleff and Swallow.
Until we have meaningful ethics laws that have independent oversight and true penalties for violation–the system will not work.
Until we have campaign finance reform with donation limits and thorough reviews of financial disclosures with severe penalties for violation–the system will not work.
And until we have elected officials who set aside their own political aspirations, their innate need to “protect” their own, and stand up for honesty, integrity and ethics–the system will not work.
But to truly fix a broken system, we must have voters stand up and demand these changes–everyday citizens of Utah who believe that we are better than this, that corruption is not a Utah value. That is how we’ll prove the system works.