Lessons to be learned from the tale of John Swallow.
—by John deJong
On one level or another, many of us are repelled by certain politicians. A certain odor prompts a vague nausea. It’s interesting when a group of people with the same reek take offense at one of their own. If you can imagine that, then you can imagine this year’s annual Utah County Lincoln Day dinner where Utah’s newly elected Attorney General John Swallow was shunned by a ballroom of Republican muckety-mucks.
Swallow faces new accusations of campaign finance irregularities. This time, three “businessmen” in the internet startup marketing “business” claim that Swallow promised them prophylactic protection at the state Attorney General’s office against possible actions regarding consumer fraud in return for campaign contributions to then-Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtliff.
This is on top of earlier allegations by St. George millionaire Jeremy Johnson that Swallow promised to hook Johnson up with US Senator Harry Reid’s people in order to get relief from the Federal Trade Commission’s charges of consumer fraud. In Swallow’s defense, Johnson is a shyster of the first water, having bilked his “customers” of some $275 million and concealing the ill-gotten gains in a web of 265 bank accounts, 60 financial institutions and 115 shell companies.
It appears that John Swallow spent a good part of 2009 beating the bushes for Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtliff. He did pretty well, even though 2009 wasn’t an election year. Shurtliff’s campaign reported “donations” of $165,500. In an surprise twist, Swallow was almost immediately appointed as Shurtliff’s deputy.
Governor Gary Herbert offered Swallow what was probably the lamest praise-by-faint-shame when he asked, “Could it have been done better? In hindsight, probably yes.”
Done better? Does Herbert mean to not have gotten caught? Or, does he mean being more subtle when proposing a quid pro quo (Latin for “you cross my Political Action Committee’s palm with silver and I’ll ‘probably’ get your back”) with prospective campaign contributors? Does he mean take the “retainer” and act stupid when it comes time to represent? Does he mean “doing” favors for campaign donors instead of giving empty promises? Does he mean never doing favors for campaign contributors?
Hindsight? With our opaque campaign contribution laws and “brand promotion”-oriented, focus-grouped media campaigns, hindsight is all we have.
Herbert also cautioned citizens to wait until due process had run its course before judging Swallow.
Due process? This is the kind of thing an honorable man would fall on his sword for. I expect Swallow’s perspective is that, if he resigns, his market capitalization will go to zero and all those people’s “investments” in him will be worthless.
Utah GOP Chair Thomas Wright, as reported in the Deseret News, echoed Herbert’s caution, “I hope other elected officials will learn from John’s experience and make changes to avoid this kind of situation in the future.”
The rules of graft
If you plan to go into politics, there are a few lessons to be learned here. The First Rule of Graft is: Don’t do it in public, or on tape.
Jeremy Johnson made a tape in a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop in Orem of Swallow explaining how results can’t be guaranteed. A good politician, by which I mean bad politician, never says, “Okay, let me get this straight. You and your friends will give my PAC 50,000 badly needed Free $peech points and I’ll make sure state regulators won’t be a problem for you, no matter how badly you’re fleecing your… ‘customers,’ did I get that right?”
The Second Rule of Graft: Make them come to you. That way, they’re guilty of bribery and you are just innocently trying to raise campaign funds.
The Third Rule of Graft: Keep your end of the bargain and don’t lean on them too hard. If Swallow had made good on his promises, neither Jeremy Johnson nor the three businessmen would have ratted him out.
How to care for democracy
For those of us who value democracy there are some other lessons here. Some were offered by GOP Chair Thomas Wright.
• Make all campaign contributions anonymous. That way politicians would have no idea who they owe favors to.
•Full disclosure of all meetings for elected officials and their staffs and no private meetings. They are, or will be, public servants and they owe us, as well as other elected representatives, an accounting for all of their actions.
• Limits on campaign contributions. The present system allows individuals, who are limited to how much they can contribute, to “launder” their contributions through dummy corporations which, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, are unlimited. In 2009 the PAC for Utah’s Future raised $246,000 for Mark Shurtliff from 10 corporations. One “Utah” company, which contributed $66,000, has no record of incorporation in Utah. Five of them are no longer in existence.
• Better scrutiny of campaign contributions. All contributions of more than $1,000 should be verified.
• Prompt and complete reporting of campaign contributions. Full information as soon as the money hits the bank. We are entitled to know who is trying to buy “access” to our elected representatives.
• Campaign contributions should be confined to a limited time period prior to the election.
• Stiffer penalties for incorrect, incomplete or false information on reports. There isn’t a death penalty for crimes against democracy, but there should be.
• An independent ethics commission.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United has made a mockery of democracy. It would be nice to think that our legislature will pass a decent campaign ethics law, but they all owe their comfortable situations to the unregulated flow of campaign contributions. We, the people, are going to have to do this for ourselves. Overturning Citizens United and passing a state initiative to force common sense ethics regulations on our representatives is the only way anything is going to change.