“This is the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do,” said Speaker Lockhart at the beginning of the House Republican caucus meeting this afternoon. “I thought the redistricting process would be the hardest, but I was wrong.”
The 61 Republican members of the Utah House of Representatives met as a caucus this afternoon to discuss the potential impeachment of the scandal-laden Attorney General John Swallow. After over two hours of discussion about the possibilities of an impeachment or impeachment investigation, the Republican caucus voted not to open the impeachment process officially, but to begin an investigatory committee.
The majority of the meeting was taken up by the legislature’s attorney, John Fellows, who walked the lawmakers through the impeachment process and how it could work. You can see a handy little flow chart of the process here.
One major point made by Fellows involved the purpose of impeachment. He spent quite a bit of time clarifying that impeachment has nothing to do with criminal acts, but is purely a political process based on whether or not an elected official can still efficiently carry out the duties of the office. His comments seemed to be a direct rebuttal to a letter Swallow sent to the legislature last week, claiming that it was illegal for them to impeach him unless he was convicted of a crime.
The Republican lawmakers appeared a little hesitant to be very vocal with the amount of press in the room, but eventually the questions did come. The majority of questions from the group revolved around how they should define terms, specifically the phrase “high crimes, misdemeanors and malfeasance in office,” which is the phrase in the Utah Constitution which governs impeachment. Fellows actually dodged most of those questions, repeating that because no federal court has ever waded into the issue and define the terms, the Utah House of Representatives has “absolute and 100 percent discretion” to define the terms for itself.
Despite the many allegations and multiple investigations of the beleaguered Attorney General, Fellows warned that it’s still a possibility that the FBI, Department of Justice, and the Salt Lake and Davis County prosecutors may come back and decide not to prosecute Swallow at all.
“That doesn’t mean that [John Swallow] is innocent,” said Fellows. “That means that the standard for a criminal investigation is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ and they didn’t have the evidence to reach that standard. [Swallow] could still be guilty or innocent regardless of their decision.”
An interesting moment came from Representative Dee, who criticized the recent poll numbers out of BYU, showing that 72 percent of Utahns want the impeachment process to move forward, saying that “people are basing their opinions on what they read in the media, from people who got if from somebody who got it from somebody. I want my own information, and I want to get it from people I trust.”
But it was Representative Brad Wilson (R, Kaysville), who made the motion to begin the investigatory committee that was pre-approved by the Republican leadership. “This gives us the opportunity to proceed cautiously,” said Representative Wilson, “and find out for ourselves what happened. I recognize that some people would like to proceed directly to impeachment, but I believe this to be the best way to move forward.”
Under the motion, the House will convene and then create an investigatory committee and the rules it will be governed by in its investigation. Most likely, it will include subpoena power so the committee can call witnesses before it to answer questions.
Representative Ken Ivory (R, West Jordan), proposed a substitute motion, attempting to derail the investigation until October. “I want to wait and see what happens with the FBI and the County Attorneys come up with. They’re professionals, and I think we should let them do the heavy lifting for us.”
Ivory’s substitute motion failed by voice vote, by what sounded like 2:1 opposition. The caucus then approved the original motion to begin the investigation by a vote of 59 to 2.
“We want to enter into this investigation without any talk about impeachment,” said Speaker Becky Lockhart. “We want to do this without any predetermined outcome.”
The legislature will likely convene within the next few weeks, to begin setting up the investigation process.
Two weeks ago, the 14-member House Democratic Caucus published on Op-Ed asking for the investigatory committee, and “it appears we [as the House Republican Caucus] are meeting that request.” said Representative Kraig Powell (R, Heber City).
“I think it’s a good thing we’re moving forward with the investigation.” Says Representative Brian King (D, SLC), who attended the meeting as a spectator. “But I’m disappointed that this decision was made in the republican caucus without the contemporaneous involvement of the House Democrats. It’s not right, and it speaks to the problems with a one party dominated system. The process is what’s important, and the process should have involved every member of the House, not just the Republicans.”
House Democratic Leader Jennifer Seelig also released a statement to the media, saying “As a caucus we have been firm in our decision to call for a bipartisan investigative committee. We understand this was a difficult decision to make for the Republican caucus, and commend their willingness to joins us in this undertaking.”
The investigation and potential impeachment of Swallow by the legislature could take months, and cost up to $5 million in taxpayer funding. According the Fellows, the average time of the impeachment process in congress is 9 months, and that’s with a full time congress and full time staff.