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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers have voted to launch an investigation about allegations surrounding Attorney General John Swallow.
At a three-hour caucus meeting Wednesday, House Republicans discussed the legal ins and outs of a possible impeachment, but ultimately stopped short of taking that dramatic step.
The legislative committee that will be formed to investigate Swallow will be able to issue subpoenas and gather evidence, and then members will report their findings to the full Utah House.
The Republican House Caucus meeting began at 11:30 a.m., and opinions on the subject of Swallow's alleged unethical practices were quick in coming.
"I firmly believe that doing nothing is probably the worst thing I can do," said House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden.
According to the Utah Constitution, impeachment is the duty of the House. Lawmakers listened as legislative attorneys explained the options and the precedent for impeachment, which is independent of any other government body.
SALT LAKE CITY — Embattled Attorney General John Swallow said he shared "my side of the story" Wednesday morning with House conservatives in advance of a three-hour GOP caucus later on impeachment.
Swallow told KSL News after the meeting his only concern about a legislative investigation on top of the federal, state and local probes already underway is the "hyper-politicized process that we might have in this state if we jump the gun."
Swallow has been dogged by bribery and misconduct allegations starting shortly after he assumed office in January. He's the subject of a federal investigation and complaints filed with the Utah State Bar and the elections office.
Swallow has denied wrongdoing in any of the cases.
His personal attorneys have told lawmakers that any impeachment proceedings would be unjustified and based on "innuendo and unsupported allegations in the press from indicted and convicted felons."
Swallow said the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into allegations he helped broker a deal for an indicted Utah businessman seeking to derail a federal inquiry is in "its winding down stages."
"I think we will find the answers within two to three months," Swallow said. "That is nothing more than looking at other similar types of investigations," such as a 10-month examination of the Arizona attorney general.
Having the results of the investigation by September or October, he said he told the House conservatives, "is still plenty of time once those answers are given for the Legislature then to consider what they want to do."
Swallow said he was asking the public and lawmakers to respect his right to due process.
"Of all the people who deserve the benefit of due process, it's the attorney general. The attorney general affords that right to others and I'm asking the people of this state to afford the same consideration to the attorney general," he said.
Swallow said the public does not "want their attorney general tried in the media, which is what is happening here." He referred to a legal opinion by his personal attorneys that said impeachment proceedings against him were unwarranted.
Federal authorities "depoliticized" his case by moving the investigation to the Justice Department's public integrity section, Swallow said.
"I think that the biggest worry I have is that this will become politicized, hyper-politicized," he said of any investigation by the Legislature. "That's the concern. I think that's what a lot of them are also concerned with, that if they're not careful, this will become a political feeding frenzy."
"One important takeaway that we're going to come back to time and time again is all this is up to you. You get to decide what you do, how you do it, what standards you use, what standards you decline," said legislative counsel John Fellows.
Some Republicans suggested waiting until the criminal are finished; others strongly disagreed.
"I'm embarrassed by members of our own body that rail against the federal government and then plead for us to wait for the 'suddenly brilliant' Federal Bureau of Investigation to tell us how to do our constitutional responsibility," said Rep. Spencer Cox, R-Fairview.
At the same time, House Democrats held their own caucus, upset they were left out of the decision.
"We've had a final decision made about how to move forward by the Republicans alone. I don't like that. I don't think it's right. I think it illustrates the one-party system that we have in Utah and the problems associated with it," said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.
Republican House leaders called Wednesday's decision the appropriate step.
"What this allows us to do is investigate and establish facts, and then decide to move forward, or not, in an impeachment process based on the facts," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart.
For the embattled attorney general, the decision gives him more time to give his side of the story before the House decides whether he will face impeachment.
"I thought it was a great process," Swallow said of the caucus meeting, "and I really believe that the Legislature got it right. And I'm looking forward to sharing that information, answering questions and restoring trust."
Governor Gary Herbert also offered input about Wednesday's special legislative session.
"I think the Legislature is handling this exactly right," Herbert said. "This is an unfortunate situation in our history ... I think the Legislature needs to be very cautions, methodical, careful as they go about this evaluation — which I believe they are doing."
Meanwhile, state legal scholars are concerned about the landmark decisions being made and what it could mean for the state's future. Utah has never officially impeached an elected official.
"I think we're in an unusual situation right now because there's been a lot of allegations that have been made — a lot of smoke, but no proven fire yet," said Paul Cassell, a former federal court judge. "The question is going to be: Is smoke enough to move forward with an impeachment proceeding? And I think probably not."
The legislative committee's investigation is expected to take several weeks to complete, but it could stretch on for months.