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Progressive Group Scores A Win With Utah Attorney General's Downfall

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AP Photo / Rick Bowmer

There was the federal investigation, which fizzled. There's the probe going on in the Utah House of Representatives. A couple of district attorneys in Utah are digging around, too. And then there's the investigation conducted on behalf of Utah's lieutenant governor's office, which culminated in a report released last week.

The report found probable cause that Swallow committed multiple violations of state law by failing to disclose ties to several business entities. It could have led to Swallow being removed from office, had he not announced his resignation the day before it was released. And it goes in the win column for Alliance for a Better Utah, the small advocacy group that in March filed the initial complaint about Swallow with the lieutenant governor's office.

Across the country, there are groups -- advocacy groups, watchdog groups, ethics groups, political groups -- that file complaints about officials, office holders, and government agencies. Often nothing happens. The Swallow saga in Utah is a rare example of a complaint making good. And while Swallow has insisted that his decision to resign was not influenced by the report from the lieutenant governor's office, his opponents think otherwise.

"I have no doubt that Swallow knew [what the report would find]," Maryann Martindale, executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah, told TPM in an interview this week. "Because the timing of that is not just suspect, it's just not possible for him to have done that. When only a few months prior he said, 'I will never resign, I've never done anything wrong.' ... He was planning on sticking this out, I really think he thought he was going to skate by."

At the very least, the alliance's complaint contributed to the pressure on Swallow. And his resignation is a big moment for the group.

Founded in early 2011 by Josh Kanter, a lawyer and Democratic party donor, the alliance is an affiliate of the multi-state ProgressNow network. The group was intended to be a progressive yet independent voice that could articulate an opposing view and address issues in a state where citizens are, according to Martindale, particularly sensitive to perceived negative campaigning from candidates and parties. In an overwhelmingly Republican state, the alliance (which has two former state Republican legislators on its board) advocates for progressive issues, tracks elected officials, and follows policy.

"We felt like, you know what, there needs to be an organization that isn't involved in the political cycle -- we don't endorse candidates or anything like that type of involvement -- [that] isn't affiliated with any party, that can actually say these things, and maybe have credibility that a candidate cannot," Martindale said, before acknowledging that the alliance aligns "more closely" with Democratic party issues.

The alliance is organized as a tax-exempt 501(c)4 social welfare organization and, like the giant "dark money" 501(c)4s Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity, the group does not disclose its donors. But it doesn't focus on elections, and its budget is tiny in comparison: $125,000 a year in total revenues, most of which goes to pay the salaries of Martindale, a communications director, and a part-time tech person.

"We're very small," Martindale said. "We have a lot of small donors and we have a few larger donors. By larger I mean to say $5,000-$10,000 kind of range."

In its first few years of existence, the alliance worked on redistricting, immigration, and low-income issues. In the summer of 2012, the group began hearing stories about Swallow, then a Republican candidate for attorney general. Martindale said the group first tried to raise questions during campaign season, but they didn't stick. Then in January, just a few days after Swallow was sworn in, major allegations about Swallow's business dealings hit the press in Utah.

"It was stuff that a lot of people knew," Martindale said. "I would say everyone on the inside knew about this."

That month, the alliance filed a complaint about Swallow with the state bar. And then, on the advice of some reporters, the group started looking at Swallow's financial disclosure forms. (Martindale gave much credit to the "relentless" reporters in the state who had investigated Swallow.) The alliance asked two attorneys (one of whom is on its board) to take a look. They recommended the organization file a complaint with the lieutenant governor's office.

"There were a lot of people at the time who were like, 'Why are you even doing that? That's not going to lead to anything. It's just -- yawn,'" Martindale said.

At that point, Martindale said, the alliance was "fortunate" that their complaint was taken seriously by the lieutenant governor's office. Of the 12 alleged violations in the complaint, the lieutenant governor's office eventually deemed three worthy of further investigation. And the office -- then and now headed by a Republican -- urged Utah lawmakers to change rules so that the investigation could be handed to a special counsel, instead of to the attorney general's office. The investigation went on from there.

Mark Thomas, director of elections in the lieutenant governor's office, told TPM this week that he appreciates groups like the alliance, despite their different political alignments.

"[The] alliance is a little more progressive, my boss is obviously a Republican," Thomas said. "And although politics play a part in everything we do, because that's the nature of it, we've had a great working relationship with the alliance."

Democrats in the Utah, meanwhile, are more effusive in their praise for the group's role in Swallow's resignation.

"If it hadn't been for [the alliance's] complaint, I'm not sure that we would get to this point of him resigning as all," state Rep. Brian King (D) told TPM. "It's the kind of pressure that [the alliance] exerts here in Utah, that I think accomplishes some great things, that are necessary."

For her part, Martindale credits "the fact that there were all these different voices" pressuring Swallow for ultimately forcing his resignation.

"This is so much of his own doing," Martindale said. "He had these involvements with really unsavory characters, and they just kept coming out of the woodworks."

But there's still some question about whether Swallow knew what was coming in the lieutenant governor's report last week. In his interview with TPM, Thomas said his office received a draft report from the special counsel on Nov 18. The next day, Thomas said, the lieutenant governor's office informed Swallow's attorney that the report would be released. Swallow held his resignation press conference two days later.

In an email to TPM this week, Swallow's attorney, Rodney Snow, reiterated that Swallow's decision was not influenced by the lieutenant governor's report.

"John's resignation had nothing to do with the Lt Governor's report," Snow wrote. (Emphasis his.) "We were delivered a copy around noon the day it was released to the public -- perhaps an hour before. John had made the decision to resign several days before the report was released which was the first time we became aware of the recommendation."

About The Author

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Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website?s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl@talkingpointsmemo.com