SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — As candidates for attorney general, Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow vowed to root out fraud and uphold the laws of Utah with the highest integrity. They served a combined 13 years as attorney general while holding significant political sway and ambitions for higher office.
On Tuesday, the disgraced former politicians were arrested on a range of bribery charges stemming from cozy relationships with several businessmen who plied them with gold coins, lavish trips, flights on private planes and trips aboard a luxury houseboat. They were also accused of trying to cover up the alleged schemes.
The Republicans each face 15 years in prison in a case that Gov. Gary Herbert, a fellow Republican, said “serves as a reminder that nobody is above the law and, if anything, public servants must be held to a higher standard.”
Shurtleff told reporters at a news conference that it was a “sobering experience” to be arrested, but he looked forward to defending himself through the legal process. He called it a politically motivated investigation by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, a Democrat.
“I served that system for most of my professional career,” the 56-year-old said. “I have complete confidence that justice will be served.”
It was a stunning reversal for a pair who authorities say got entangled in the same type of fraud both of them vowed to fight as they easily won four straight attorney general races.
Despite its image as a wholesome place, Utah has long struggled with scammers who take advantage of unsuspecting residents and made the state a cradle for swindlers. It has been named one of the country’s five “Ponzi scheme hot spots” by the FBI.
During his 2012 campaign for attorney general, Swallow pledged several times to make white-collar crime a priority, including Twitter posts stating he would “fight against financial crime and those who abuse their positions of trust to commit fraud.”
After winning his third term in office in 2008, Shurtleff vowed to spend the next four years fighting fraud the same way he’s combatted methamphetamine lab operators.
“No plea bargains,” he said. “We didn’t give plea bargains to them, and we’re going to do the same with mortgage fraud, identity theft and white-collar crimes.”
Gill said the investigation is ongoing and additional charges will likely be filed against both men and others. He said the probe had nothing to do with politics.
It’s unclear if federal charges are being considered, though the FBI, which is assisting the probe, said it will continue to investigate a number of leads.
When Swallow, 51, walked out of jail Tuesday afternoon, he said he’d known for a few weeks that this was likely to happen.
“I absolutely maintain my innocence,” he said. “This finally gives us the opportunity to start to respond back.”
The arrests and allegations are a bombshell political scandal that brings back memories of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which were tarnished by a bribery scandal.
Court records show Swallow faces 13 charges, including felony bribery charges, while Shurtleff faces 10 counts that include bribery.
Gill said both men are accused of accepting at least $50,000 in cash or campaign contributions from people who faced or expected to face scrutiny from the attorney general’s office.
They used a luxury jet and personal property belonging to a businessman in trouble with regulators, and took a California vacation paid for by another businessman, authorities said. Swallow also used the businessman’s million-dollar houseboat on Lake Powell — a vessel so large it had a helipad — and accepted a dozen gold coins from a former employer. He later sold back the coins to the same person for more than they were worth, according to officials.
In the cover-up allegations, prosecutors say Swallow destroyed and falsified records. Swallow said any missing records were deleted unintentionally.
Swallow resigned in late 2013 after spending nearly 11 months dogged by the bribery and corruption allegations. He adamantly denied breaking any laws and said the toll of the scrutiny had become too much for him and his family.
The first allegations dropped less than a week after Swallow took the oath of office in January 2013.
In the months following, the accusations and investigations snowballed and led to probes by the U.S. Department of Justice, Utah elections officials and the state bar.
An investigation from Utah lawmakers concluded Swallow destroyed and fabricated records and hung a veritable “for sale” sign on the door of the attorney general’s office.
Shurtleff is Utah’s longest-serving attorney general. He left the office in early 2013 after a dozen years in office. Swallow served as chief deputy for Shurtleff from 2009 to early 2013 and was his hand-picked successor.
Associated Press reporters Brady McCombs, Annie Knox and Rick Bowmer in Salt Lake City and Michelle Rindels in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice