SALT LAKE CITY — Attorney General Sean Reyes and Utah County Attorney David Leavitt took off the gloves Tuesday in a Republican primary election debate, belting each other high and low on criminal justice reform, campaign finances and politicization of the office.
Leavitt went after Reyes accepting tens of thousands of dollars from organizations such as the Republican Attorneys General Association and a brine shrimp company, saying the attorney general’s office is “for sale” as it has been in the past. Reyes, he said, simply goes where the money is.
“Why does a brine shrimp need an attorney general?” Leavitt asked.
Reyes said there are no allegations that any decision he has made to investigate or not to investigate or prosecute a case was influenced by a campaign contribution.
“The people that donate know they get no special treatment,” he said, adding they know that they’re not buying influence and if they think that they are, it’s a “terrible investment.” He noted that he went after Google in a nationwide lawsuit despite receiving a donation from the company.
Leavitt said Reyes is “duty bound” to follow the Republican Attorneys General Association because it gives him so much money. Reyes countered that although the organization is made up like-minded “true conservatives,” he has stood up to the GOP on issues such as the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Reyes said the attorney general’s office is a law office.
“It’s not a political office first,” he said, conceding it has politics around it and every legal decision has a political implication. He said he avoids hyperpartisanship by representing the people. He called Leavitt’s accusations about partisanship “pure campaign rhetoric, pure nonsense.”
Leavitt said it’s “laughable” for Reyes to say he avoids politics.
“There has not been an attorney general in recent memory more politically aligned with one party and that advances the interests of one party more than Mr. Reyes,” he said.
While Reyes and Leavitt pounded on each other at the Utah Debate Commission event, Democratic attorney general candidate Greg Skordas live tweeted his own answers to the debate questions.
Afterward, Skordas said he hopes Utahns would see the debate as a wake-up call. Both Republican candidates, he said, would give the attorney general’s office more of the same. The winner of the June 30 GOP primary will face Skordas in the November general election.
“David Leavitt seems solely focused on criminal justice reform, and Sean Reyes continues to make political maneuvers,” Skordas said.
Leavitt worked his primary issue — criminal justice reform — into as many answers as he could during the hourlong debate at the University of Utah. He favors pushing cases to trial instead of plea bargains because he says “our very liberty is at stake.” He also favors alternate forms of punishment other than prison for nonviolent offenders.
“It is the issue of our generation and the reason Mr. Reyes doesn’t want to talk about it is because he hasn’t done it,” Leavitt said.
Reyes said there are more issues in the race than criminal justice reform and “anybody that tells you that it is isn’t qualified to be the attorney general.”
He said he has supported state and federal criminal justice reform and brought reintegration programs to the state. He called Leavitt’s proposal to take every case to a jury trial a “charade” and “Quixotic idea” that government can’t afford.
Of the national and state racial unrest, Leavitt said it’s a symptom of government not listening and not holding police accountable for their actions. Prosecutors, including Reyes, do not view themselves properly as a check on police, he said.
“They view themselves as someone trying to be part of their club. While we need to work with the police, we can’t be part of the club with police because we are their check,” Leavitt said.
Reyes called Leavitt “uninformed” and he said he has filed lawsuits against sheriffs, police chiefs and law enforcement officers. The recent violence overshadows the message of racial inequality, he said.
“As a person of color, I understand it very deeply. I know it. I feel it. Just because I’m the attorney general doesn’t immunize me from it,” Reyes said.
Leavitt said Reyes is shirking his duty to oversee and lead county attorneys in the state. Leavitt said even though he’s been out pushing criminal justice reform, Tuesday was the first time he has seen Reyes in person since becoming Utah County attorney 18 months ago.
“He can’t say he’s leading because I’ve never seen him,” he said.
Reyes said maybe he’s never seen Leavitt because he’s received more complaints about him from leaders and residents than any other public official. The state, he said, doesn’t dictate how elected county attorneys do their jobs.
“My opponent would want to be an emperor and tell and dictate to county attorneys what they should do,” Reyes said.