Attorney General Candidates Focus Campaigns on Plans to Clean Up Office
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Democratic challenger Charles Stormont say they each have a plan to restore integrity to the office of the state’s chief legal advisor in the wake of a scandal that drove the former Attorney General to resign. In our continuing series profiling Utah major mid-term election races, we examine each candidate’s strategy and how they might influence voters.
This is not going to all happen in one month, or even in one year. Some of the culture change may take several years. But know this, it will begin today. - Sean Reyes
Utah voters elected Republican John Swallow to be Attorney General in the 2012 election. The term of office is supposed to be four years, but after allegations of corruption and several investigations, Swallow chose to resign less than a year into his term.
“I’m deeply disappointed, that, what I believe is the agenda of political enemies and people with a personal agenda to hurt me, or to help themselves at my expense, has led to the resignation of the Attorney General duly elected by the people in the fall of 2012,” he said at the press conference where he resigned.
Meanwhile, Governor Gary Herbert appointed Sean Reyes to fill the vacancy until this November’s special election. When Reyes took the oath of office in late December 2013, he said his first priority would be to regain the public’s trust in the office.
“This is not going to all happen in one month, or even in one year," he said. "Some of the culture change may take several years. But know this, it will begin today.”
Since then, Reyes says he’s implemented a performance evaluation system, re-interviewed and re-assigned many of the office’s division chiefs, and worked to get the staff pay raises.
“It was imperative for me to try to win back that trust, internal at first, by trying to take care of my own people, by making sure that these great public servants that I serve and represent and lead have the resources that they need. Whether their technological resources, whether it’s compensation, fair pay for all the work that they do.”
Charles Stormont has worked in the AG’s office for the past six years. He says he saw first hand the wake left behind by Swallow and was looking forward to a change.
“You know, I was really rooting for Sean when he came in," he says. "We were looking for strong, effective, leadership.”
But he says that’s not what he got.
“You know, I decided to run for office and I think that tells you how I felt about the job that was being done, and kind of missing the mark on the types of reforms that are really needed in the office.”
He says one of those needed reforms is the creation of a state ethics division that would allow employees in the AG’s office to speak out about corruption.
In their first and only televised debate, Stormont even attacked Reyes for implementing policy that he claims does the exact opposite.
“Instead of giving people a place where they can speak up, the Attorney General has put a gag order on employees of the office. He’s said if you speak up to the press or anybody else without my permission, you’ll be fired.”
“That’s a nice sound bite," replied Reyes. "It’s highly inaccurate. The only gagging that goes on is when the lawyers in our office hear my opponent use that term because they know it’s not true. The only one who’s gagging is if you’re disseminating information that you shouldn’t be, private, confidential, protected information. We have a policy in our office that is consistent with most agencies and all law offices that I know.”
Outside of an early voting location in Salt Lake County the recent scandals involving former AG’s Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow were definitely on the minds of the voters I spoke to.
“So the scandal was really important to you.”
“Yes. Yes,” says Colleen Hardwick
“And you followed it a little bit?”
Instead of giving people a place where they can speak up, the Attorney General has put a gag order on employees of the office. - Charles Stormont
She was there voting with her husband Earl. And while the scandal was on the forefront of their minds, they say their vote was mostly based along party lines.
“It was pretty easy," Earl says. "And it’s like, the Republican Party has such control over this state that there’s no way there’s any balance. You know, I’m to the point where I don’t trust them at all.”
I also spoke with Shirley Perkins. She says she voted for Sean Reyes.
“Well I think he’s kind of reorganized his office, kind of cleaned it up a little bit, and he seems to be a lot more ethical, I guess," she says. "From what I hear in the news anyway, so, that’s what I liked.”
“Did the scandals that were in there previously, did that make you at all look at the Democratic candidate?”
“So you just trusted that it was those two guys and it didn’t impact anybody else?”
“I’m not sure voters have strong opinions on how, exactly, the Attorney General’s office should be cleaned up, they just want it to function well,” says Chris Karpowitz.
He’s the co-director of the Center For the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
He says another reason people might not be taking a second look at Stormont could be his views on Utah’s same-sex marriage lawsuit.
“That’s an issue that Utah voters seem to care a great deal about, regardless of which side of the issue you happen to be on, and he may have taken a stance on that issue that made an uphill battle even harder,” Karpowitz says.
While a moot point now that the Supreme Court has decided to pass on Utah’s case, Stormont says he would have dropped the appeal if elected.
“Part of the AG’s job is to stand up for the people and to stand up for their rights, and where Sean has been unwilling to do that I think he’s misunderstanding the actual proper duty of the AG.”
But Reyes says defending laws the Attorney General doesn’t agree with is part of the job description.
“If an attorney general can silence the voices of the people by saying, ‘I won’t defend that law’ whether he or she agrees with it or not, it’s an incredible dangerous precedent to set," he says. "In the long term that will undermine the credibility of the attorney general’s office almost more than anything else, short of scandals.”
The two candidates disagree on many other things too. For example, they disagree on how to handle the efforts to gain more control of federal lands in Utah. They also disagree on campaign donations. Stormont won’t take any money from industries he might have to bring a case against, while Reyes thinks that paints with too broad of a brush.
But it’s likely the little letter next to each candidates name will be the only difference that will matter come election day. Which means Stormont likely faces an uphill battle as he tries to be the first Democrat elected to a statewide office in more than a decade.