Utah legislators are rushing through a last-minute piece of legislation that would allow an independent investigation into the state's embattled attorney general as the clock ticks down on the annual legislative session.
Late Wednesday night, lawmakers introduced legislation to allow Lt. Gov. Greg Bell (R) to name special counsel to investigate ethics allegations against state Attorney General John Swallow (R), instead of following the current practice of letting Swallow investigate himself.
Swallow is alleged to have withheld information about outside income he received during his 2012 campaign. He is under investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice for his possible role in an alleged scheme to bribe Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to stop a federal investigation into a cement company. Swallow's outside income is from the cement company, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
Alliance for a Better Utah filed a complaint last week with the lieutenant governor's office alleging that Swallow withheld sources of outside income on two campaign disclosure forms during his campaign. Under Utah law, Bell, the state's chief elections officer, forwards complaints to the attorney general for investigation, putting Swallow in the position of investigating himself.
Utah's legislators are scheduled to wrap up their session Thursday.
"This is unprecedented," Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Utah, told HuffPost about the time frame. "This doesn't happen. They have to suspend so many rules."
A state Senate committee approved the bill, without objection, in an emergency meeting Thursday afternoon, passing the bill to the full Senate for consideration. House action is also expected on Thursday.
Swallow's spokesman did not return a call for comment. A Swallow political aide told the Salt Lake Tribune last week that the Alliance's complaint included listing companies that involved a different John Swallow and that the attorney general would work with Bell on the matter.
Martindale said the issues surrounding Swallow have highlighted aspects of ethics laws in the state, which does not have an ethics commission for executive branch officials. She noted that the complaint also brings up the potential conflict of high-ranking state officials receiving compensation for outside work. At issue in the Swallow case, are funds the attorney general said he received from a cement company for consulting work he did for it while serving as chief deputy attorney general.
"Utah has a very, very bad approach to ethics," she said. "We assume that everyone is above board and is not doing anything wrong. That's absurd."
Martindale said Utah's attitude mirrors that of other western states -- that either there have been no issues to warrant strong ethics watchdog systems, or that corruption can be prevented informally. Last year, the Center for Public Integrity gave Utah a D for ethics enforcement.
However, Martindale noted that the Swallow ordeal led to a proposed bill that would establish an ethics watchdog over the executive branch as well as Thursday's legislation to prevent the attorney general's office from investigating its leader. She said lawmakers plan in the future to address who would investigate the governor and lieutenant governor.