SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A newly formed committee of Utah lawmakers investigating Attorney General JohnSwallow has already encountered a hiccup before holding its first meeting.
House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart on Thursday replaced the chairman of the committee, Republican Rep. Lowry Snow, to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest.
Snow, a St. George attorney, once represented Jeremy Johnson, the Utah businessman who accused Swallow of arranging a plot to bribe the U.S. Senate majority leader, which Swallow has denied.
Lockhart announced late Thursday that Snow agreed to step down from the committee and his seat as chairman would be filled by Rep. Jim Dunnigan, who had already been appointed to the panel.
Lockhart called Dunnigan a widely respected member of the House who will be tough but fair in running the committee.
Dunnigan, a Republican and insurance agency owner from Taylorsville, said Friday that the shake-up will not hinder the committee’s work, which he’s eager to begin.
“It’s just a hiccup. We’re barely getting started,” Dunnigan said. “I don’t think this is a setback at all. Almost all of the committee members are still going forward. We’ve got good members on the committee.”
In a House blog post Thursday evening, Lockhart, a Republican from Provo, said it was a joint decision made by her and Snow.
“Rep. Snow is above reproach, which is why he was chosen as chairman in the first place,” Lockhart said in the blog. “But whether we like it or not, perception matters in the public sphere. It pains me to lose him, his talents and leadership skills.”
Snow’s firm also represents companies on the periphery of a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit against Johnson in Nevada. Snow says the companies are not some of Johnson’s companies, but the FTC had attempted to freeze the companies’ assets in the lawsuit.
“I felt it was in the best interests of the committee to step aside in order to avoid any perception of conflict of interest,” Snow said in a statement posted on the House blog. “This will allow the public to focus on theinvestigation, and not on who is doing the investigating.”
Snow did not immediately return messages Friday seeking further comment.
Lockhart said Friday that any potential conflicts of interest were not raised by Snow or any other committee members when they were appointed.
“When I asked them, I made it clear what their roles were and none were expressed to me,” Lockhart said.
She said she’s not aware of any other conflicts among members, and didn’t see the change of committee leaders as a hindrance.
“The committee hasn’t begun their work yet, and so the process is just beginning,” Lockhart said. “Rep. Dunnigan will do a great job as chair.”
The Utah House created the panel earlier this month in what could be the first step in a possible impeachment of the state’s top law enforcement officer.
The nine member committee, made up of five Republicans and four Democrats, has been tasked with delivering a report to the House of Representatives, but it will not make a recommendation on what action, if any, should be taken against Swallow.
Swallow, a Republican, has seen his first seven months in office marked by allegations of misconduct.
He is the subject of federal and state investigations but has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and says he’s confident his name will be cleared.
Swallow’s spokesman declined to comment on Friday. His personal attorneys did not immediately return messages seeking comment on Friday.
Snow said previously that he didn’t think his legal work, which was first reported by The Salt Lake Tribune, would impact his ability to head the investigative committee. But he said he would step aside if legislative leaders feel otherwise.
Snow’s departure left a vacancy on the committee, which was filled with the Thursday appointment of Rep. Francis Gibson.
Gibson, a Republican from Mapleton, is also a health care administrator and the former chairman of the House Ethics Committee.
On Friday, Gibson said Snow’s departure and his own invitation to join the committee were a surprise.
“I was shocked,” Gibson said. “He’s a good man and I think because he is a good man, he doesn’t want anything to be focused on him as much as it’s focused on the committee’s work.”
Gibson said he thinks he’s going into the investigation with an open mind.
“I don’t know that I have any expectations,” he said. “I didn’t ask to be on this. Unfortunately, things happened.”
Rep. Jennifer Seelig, the leading Democrat in the House and a member of the investigative committee, said Friday that it was unfortunate that Snow stepped down, but she respects the decision.
“Rep. Dunnigan, I think will do a fine job,” she said. “He’s also a thoughtful and mindful colleague who in my experience has been very deliberative and fair as well.”
Dunnigan said the committee is on a fact-finding mission, and will also try to determine during the probe if lawmakers need to make any changes to rules or law, such as campaign finance laws.
He said he doesn’t know of any other potential conflicts of interest, but said it’s possible with lawmakers who have full-time jobs outside of their public offices.
“We all have other lives and other jobs and the Legislature’s a part-time opportunity for us to serve,” he said. “I just hope we can get about our business.”
The committee’s first meeting is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 6.