Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Attorney General and Conflicts of Interest

By Jean Welch Hill
Utah Democratic Candidate for Attorney General

Weber County residents were likely surprised when, earlier this week, they learned that the Weber County Attorney had been asked to investigate whether laws had been broken during the contentious Republican primary race for Utah Treasurer. This is unusual, since neither of the candidates (Mark Walker and Richard Ellis) live or work in Weber County. None of the alleged misdeeds occurred in Weber County, either.

So why is the Weber County Attorney involved, you ask?

The reason is that the person normally responsible for investigating such cases – Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff – has an unmistakable conflict of interest. The attorney general is unable to do his job, and the Weber County Attorney is forced to pick up the slack. And that’s a shame.

Here is the back story. Treasurer candidate Mark Walker allegedly offered his opponent in the primary election, Richard Ellis, a bribe to get out of the treasurer’s race. Such an offer would violate Utah law. Utah’s Lieutenant Governor undertook an investigation and referred the case to Attorney General Shurtleff immediately after the polls closed.

And there lies the problem. Despite the allegations of misconduct and the possibility of an investigation by the attorney general’s office, Shurtleff wholeheartedly endorsed Walker and hosted a fundraiser for him. Having so clearly taken sides, it would be impossible for Shurtleff to make an impartial assessment of the case on the merits. Shurtleff himself seems to have acknowledged this, by appointing the Weber County Attorney as special counsel in the matter.

If this were a single oversight, it would be regrettable but possible to overlook. People make mistakes. But this is not the first time Shurtleff has allowed politics – and particularly political fundraising – to jeopardize his ability to serve as a watchdog of the public interest. Consider two other prominent examples.

Radioactive Waste. One of the most dire problems facing the state is the issue of radioactive waste disposal. As is now well known, EnergySolutions hopes to dump tons of overseas nuclear waste at its facility in Tooele County. A bipartisan coalition led by Gov. Jon Huntsman and U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson is battling the EnergySolutions scheme.

A primary thrust of Utah’s anti-radioactive waste effort has come through its position on the Northwest Interstate Compact on Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management. Utah is a member of the Compact, and Utah’s representative recently cast a decisive vote against the EnergySolutions project. But in a virtually simultaneous action, EnergySolutions filed suit claiming that the Compact lacks authority over the radioactive waste facility in the west desert. Needless to say, if we are to avoid becoming the world’s dumping ground for radioactive waste, Utah will need the most aggressive and vigilant legal representation.

And there lies the problem. During his two terms in office, Shurtleff has taken more than $45,000 in campaign contributions from EnergySolutions, its predecessor Envirocare, and their corporate executives.

Shurtleff is on the fence, with a huge campaign donor on one side and the citizens of Utah on the other. This should never have happened. When it comes to an issue of such unparalleled importance, it is simply unacceptable for Utahns to be uncertain about where our attorney general’s loyalties lie.

Payday Lenders. Another policy issue that has been squarely in the public eye is the proliferation of payday lenders in Utah. These businesses often charge interest rates as high as ten percent – per week! That can amount to an annual interest rate of more than 500%. Many desperate borrowers find themselves unable to repay their loans, and end up owing even more to collections agencies. Yet Utah remains one of only seven states with no laws that would prohibit loans with such exorbitant interest rates. We need leadership at the state level to enact sensible laws to prevent predatory lending practices.

And there lies the problem. Shurtleff has taken no less than $70,000 from payday lending companies and their representatives during his time in office (including over $30,000 since January of this year) creating yet another problematic conflict between his political aspirations and public responsibilities.

Our attorney general should be educating the legislature about the perils of payday lending operations and advocating for sensible regulations to protect the public. In contrast, Mark Shurtleff has been one of the payday lenders’ strongest advocates at the Capitol. Given the massive investment that the payday lenders have made in his campaign, it is fair to ask who he truly represents, those who voted for him or those who paid him to run.

All candidates must get involved with fundraising. But the attorney general is an officer of the court and the paramount defender of the public interest. Utahns have every right to demand that their attorney general conduct his political affairs with a vigilant eye towards avoiding potential conflicts of interest. For without a change of behavior in the attorney general’s office, voters in Weber County and across Utah will continue to find themselves disappointed and disenfranchised by unnecessary conflicts of interest.


Jason The said...

Well, I guess that conflict of interest explains Shurtleff's "Nothing to see here, it's a moot point... Ooops, did I say that?" flip-flopping over something as important as an investigation into a possible ethics violation.

It does raise a serious question though. If the AG himself cannot follow up on a valid ethics complaint, how effective is that AG going to be in defending the citizens of this state in this and future issues?

Seems like he should've thought ahead on this a bit more, what with that being his job and all.

Anonymous said...


Are you confirming that as Utah's next Attorney General, you will never endorse another candidate in a political race?

Thank you

Anonymous said...


I am glad to see you being willing to NEVER endorse another Democrat in your life. You have 0 chance of winning, you already know this.

Anonymous said...

Jean, as a candidate for AG you should know that state statute required Shurtleff to appoint a special prosecutor regardless of whether he supported anyone for the treasurer office.

Also the AG's office does work for free at the request of county attorneys around the state all the time. It's a give and take relationship.

EnergySolutions is NOT in litigation with the state of Utah and is otherwise a law abiding company that is highly regulated, employs a lot of Utahns, pays a lot of taxes and safely disposes of and stores very low level nuclear waste.

Payday lenders are also regulated, legal corporations that provide a valuable service, employ a lot of Utahns, pay a lot of taxes and are not in any litigation with the State of Utah.

It is a shameful that someone interested in an elected legal office would target a lawful industry, refuse to become educated about the issue, for crass political pandering to certain special interest groups.

Anonymous said...


Answer us you coward. are you saying you will NEVER endorse a demoncat for office again?