Utah Governor Gary Herbert (R) will call the House of Representatives into a Special Session next Wednesday, July 17, to clarify the scope of the newly formed committee of Representatives who will be investigating scandal-laden Attorney General John Swallow (R).
Speaker of the House, Becky Lockhart (R), has just emailed all House lawmakers about the session. In the letter, she outlines what will need to be changed or added to the committee.
Most significantly, lawmakers are expected to alter Utah’s open-meetings laws. These laws forbid lawmakers from holding most official meetings where action may take place without notifying the public beforehand and allowing public and media attendance. According to the letter from Speaker Lockhart, “The committee needs certain records and open meetings exemptions to properly conduct interviews and gather information.” She also says that the Utah Media Coalition and the Utah Press Association have given their approval for the changes.
What this means for the public is that there are some aspects of the investigation into the Attorney General that may never become public. From the language of the bill, it’s likely that the majority of the closed moments in the investigation will be times when the committee is receiving special counsel from their attorneys. However, it also allows for the committee to vote to close their doors if they feel the testimony of a witness they’ve called may damage the criminal investigation of the Attorney General if it is public. Does that mean the committee could potentially go behind closed doors while interviewing former AG Mark Shurtleff—who has been implicated in several potentially illegal activities as well—or while interviewing Swallow himself? Possibly. But with the blowback that would cause among the public, it’s unlikely they would ever do so.
In addition to the changes to the open-meetings laws, the new language being added to the legislation creating the committee will specifically grant the investigation subpoena power, as well as authorize the investigation to hire out-of-state attorneys if they choose.
The makeup of the 9-member committee is still unknown, as the House left that decision up to the Speaker, who has said that she will make the decision of which Representatives (and how many from each party) will sit on the committee soon.
Below is the full text of Speaker Lockhart’s email to lawmakers (courtesy of the House’s blog), as well as the new bills they will be voting on next Wednesday.
Governor Herbert is calling for a Special Session on July 17. The Call comes in part at the request of the House to ensure that our new investigative committee has all the tools needed to conduct a thorough and fair investigation of the allegations surrounding the state’s Attorney General. The Senate has been very supportive and I greatly appreciate their consideration.
I understand the call is on short notice, but it is necessary. You voted to create an investigative committee, and in order for that investigation to be successful, there are a couple of things that need to be addressed in statute:
• First, technical changes — specifically ensuring that subpoena powers and offers of immunity work hand-in-hand. There is also a minor word change to ensure we can use special counsel from outside the state if we so choose. Those changes are easily addressed.
• The second set of changes address a more sensitive subject matter: open meetings and records access. The committee needs certain records and open meetings exemptions to properly conduct interviews and gather information. These powers are essentially the same as afforded any investigation into sensitive matters. Remember, we have never created such a committee and therefore the statutes have not included references to a Legislative Investigative Committee.
We have been in close discussions with the Utah Media Coalition and Utah Press Association, as well as longtime open records attorneys Jeff Hunt and Michael O’Brien. They helped to craft the bill in question and are in full agreement with the proposed language used in the bill.
Majority Leader Brad Dee will be the primary sponsor of both of the bills. I have attached drafts of the bills so that you can read them over, get questions answered and have your concerns addressed. We have asked the Governor to call the Special Session on the July 17 Interim Day because it is quite simply the most convenient time. The vast majority of lawmakers will be in the building for interim session already, and there is no interim scheduled for August. We would rather not spend $30,000 to bring everyone in for August, especially during a month of heavy travel.
Progress on the committee has already begun. Legislative staff has issued the RFP for Special Counsel, and we expect to have a person hired by Aug. 6. At that point, we will release an additional RFP for special investigators. I will be announcing the members of the investigative committee on July 17, as well.
As I have stated many times, the people of Utah want answers and information. We are meeting that need. But we must do it the right way, so that everyone can have confidence in the outcome — whatever that may be. Thank you for all that you do, and see you on the 17th.