SALT LAKE CITY — A left-leaning advocacy group is criticizing the way Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart chose a committee to investigate the state's embattled attorney general and wants her to explain her thinking.
In an open letter to the Provo Republican on Wednesday, the Alliance for a Better Utah said the selection process was "unnecessarily shrouded in secrecy" and led to an "immediate scandal" regarding her initial choice for committee chairman.
The letter comes on the heels of Lockhart replacing Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, after it was revealed he and his law firm did legal work for one of Attorney General John Swallow's chief accusers. Lockhart said she replaced Snow due to the perception of a conflict of interest.
"A full and transparent vetting process could have avoided the further embarrassment of his being named and then dismissed as committee chair," Better Utah executive director Maryann Martindale wrote.
Martindale called on the speaker to explain the criteria she used to pick the nine committee members — five Republicans and four Democrats — and how she vetted them.
Lockhart was out of town Wednesday and unreachable by cellphone. She previously said she chose committee members based on their personal skills and experience.
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, praised the speaker's selection process.
"I thought that she handled that well. I thought she vetted them well, as was her responsibility," Dee said.
A resolution the House passed to create the special investigative committee made it the speaker's sole responsibility to choose the members, though Dee and House Minority Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, offered suggestions. Dee and Seelig are among those Lockhart ultimately appointed to the panel.
Dee said Lockhart wrestled with picking committee members up until a special session of the Legislature two weeks ago. Lawmakers empowered the committee to investigate Swallow, including the ability to subpoena witnesses and grant immunity, during the session.
I'm not surprised at seeing anybody question what we may have done or how we are doing something or how the committee was selected.
–House Majority Leader Brad Dee
Some committee members, including Snow, said Lockhart only spoke to them briefly and didn't ask about potential conflicts of interest before appointing them.
Martindale said her concern is not that conflicts exist but rather that there isn't a transparent process to determine whether there are conflicts and if they're relevant to the investigation.
Dee said the criticism of Lockhart isn't a surprise "coming from where it's coming from."
The Alliance for a Better Utah frequently slams the Republican-controlled Legislature. It also filed two complaints against Swallow, one with the Utah State Bar and another with the state elections office.
"There's no good part of this," Dee said of the House taking the unprecedented step to investigate Swallow. "We will be under the microscope taking a lot of input of what we did wrong every step of the way. … I'm not surprised at seeing anybody question what we may have done or how we are doing something or how the committee was selected."
Also related to the Swallow investigation, the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel didn't announce a list of finalists Wednesday among 61 law firms that applied to work for the investigative committee. It put the decision off until Friday due to the large number of responses.
The office expects to award a contract Aug. 9. The panel's first meeting is scheduled for Aug. 6.
Dee, who is one of four legislators on the evaluation committee, said he has spent at least 20 hours reading and scoring the applications, ranging in length from 14 to 80 pages.
Some of the nation's most powerful law firms are among those vying for the job.