- The Utah state legislature has failed to provide oversight of the executive branch.
- This lack of oversight made it easy for former Attorney General Shurtleff to carry out highly questionable activities.
- Interim session resources should be reallocated to enhance legislative oversight functions.
- The legislature must conduct oversight hearings on the Attorney General’s office to determine if it can still effectively carry out its functions.
The Utah state legislature has never effectively exercised its oversight and investigatory functions.
Rather than conducting formal, public oversight hearings to hold the executive branch accountable and to ensure that it properly carries out its functions, legislators prefer to create ever more laws that further restrict the liberties of the people of Utah and that expand the scope of the executive branch.
Rather than proactively identifying and addressing executive branch issues and weaknesses, the legislature allows problems to grow until they can no longer be ignored. Then legislators task the Legislative Auditor General to look into them.
The auditor carries out his work in private and issues a report. Then the legislature passes a bill to address the problem once the damage has already been done.
The failure of the legislature to hold any public oversight hearings on Attorney General Mark Shurtleff specifically or the Attorney General’s office in general allowed Shurtleff to carry out extremely questionable activities that weakened respect for the office and gave him free reign to compromise his handpicked replacement, John Swallow.
While Shurtleff was openly associating with and soliciting campaign contributions from individuals in businesses subject to high levels of fraud, hawking his novel and spending an inordinate amount of time on a wide range of other, non-Attorney General related issues, the legislature stood idly by.
Now legislative leaders say they cannot carry out oversight hearings because they have to remain impartial just in case they are ultimately called on to impeach Utah’s current Attorney General.
If members of the U.S. Congress took a similar stance, they would never conduct oversight hearings and would never investigate executive branch activities thereby seriously weakening the Constitutional balance of powers.
If Congressman Jason Chaffetz followed the lead of Utah’s legislative leaders, he would not be investigating the Obama Administration’s alleged failure to protect the lives of American diplomats because it would impact his ability to participate in some theoretical, future impeachment action.
If Senator Orrin Hatch listened to Utah’s legislative leaders, he would not be looking into the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups and he would not be accusing IRS officials of either being incompetent or evil because it could potentially impact an ongoing investigation and/or his impartiality in some future, hypothetical impeachment hearing.
Legislators also argue that as a part-time legislature, they don’t have the time or resources to provide oversight of the executive branch. However, they have more than enough time and resources to sit through interminable interim committee hearings that are driven as much by the executive branch as by the legislators themselves. This time and these resources could be better used in oversight hearings.
It is especially interesting to watch Utah legislative leaders who rail against federal authority abdicate their oversight responsibility in the Shurtleff/Swallow case by leaving everything up to federal investigators and prosecutors.
Impeachment by its very nature is both a legal and a political process. By turning it into uniquely into a legal process, the Utah State legislature is telling citizens that as long as executive officials have not committed a clear violation of law and been formally charged and convicted, they are free to continue in office without fear of oversight hearings.
It is way past time for legislators to start carrying out their oversight function. Legislative oversight hearings should be immediately called to review the functioning of the Attorney General’s office and to determine if its professional employees have been impacted by Shurtleff’s misdoings and if they still have the ability to carry out their functions. Questions that need to be answered include:
· Were full-time, taxpayer-funded attorneys who reported to Mark Shurtleff or his direct lieutenants pressured or otherwise encouraged to give special treatment to certain individuals?
· Were full-time, taxpayer funded attorneys allowed to consult or otherwise conduct business outside of normal business hours? If so, what was the impact of this practice and has it been ended?
· Did Shurtleff encourage Swallow and other staff members to carry out questionable activities in order to compromise them and to give him leverage over them once he left office? Does this continue to prevent them from reporting inappropriate activities carried out by Shurtleff?
· Why didn’t Swallow replace Shurtleff’s senior staff and bring in his own senior people?
· Were staff members in the Attorney General’s office aware of either unethical or illegal acts carried out by the Attorney General or others in the office during the tenure of Mark Shurtleff? If so, what did they do?
· Did Shurtleff misuse state funds during his extensive travels to promote his novel and to generate support for the Salt Lake Chamber’s Utah Compact. Were these activities conducted on taxpayer time and/or at taxpayer expense?
· Was it appropriate for Shurtleff to accept an award from the President of Mexico for services rendered to Mexico while he was serving as the Attorney General of Utah and what exactly did Shurtleff do to merit this award?
· What was the overall atmosphere in the AG’s office during Shurtleff’s tenure and how has it changed now that Swallow is in office?
· What needs to be done to restore confidence in the Attorney General’s office and to rebuild staff morale?