Attorney General Eric Holder will be in Utah, perhaps the reddest of Republican-red states, on Jan. 13 to deliver the keynote address at the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission’s annual lunch in Salt Lake City, an event that is already generating some controversy because of the Fast and Furious affair.
State Rep. Carl Wimmer, a Republican congressional candidate and a member of the commission, isn’t happy. Holder “needs to be held responsible for the ‘Fast and Furious’ debacle and should be immediately removed from office,” Wimmer said, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. “The buck stops with the leader, and he was in charge of what occurred there … and the man has no right being in the position he is in.”
But Holder is getting encouragement from a more prominent Republican: Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who phoned Holder several weeks ago to reiterate the commission’s invitation to speak. ”To come all the way out here to a red state and speak to us on a big occasion,” Shurtleff told the Tribune, “I think it’s huge.”
The Utah AG, in fact, is one of Holder’s biggest supporters in the controversy over Fast and Furious. The gun investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was supposed to help identify Mexican drug traffickers by tracing firearms purchased by straw buyers in Arizona to Mexico. Instead, ATF lost track of hundreds of weapons, two of which were found at the scene of a shootout that killed a Border Patrol agent in December 2010.
Shurtleff and former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat, co-authored an opinion piece in the Arizona Republic in November that echoed arguments Holder has also made to Congress, to little effect. Congress has failed to give law enforcement the tools and funding it needs to stop the flow of guns across the southern border, the two men wrote.
“Most of the recent criticism about the operation seems to be about attacking Attorney General Eric Holder and destroying the ATF rather than holding those behind Fast and Furious accountable,” Shurtleff and Goddard wrote. “The focus should be on the real public-safety problem: keeping arms from Mexican drug cartels and protecting U.S. security.”
It’s difficult to get the proof necessary to convince a judge and jury that straw buyers of weapons are criminals, Shurtleff and Goddard wrote. “Congress adds to the problem by restricting the ATF on its jurisdiction, forbidding the release of illegal gun-trafficking statistics and failing to adequately fund the agency.”
(Indeed, former ATF superviser William Newell has said in an affidavit to Congress that under current gun laws, most of the straw buyers under investigation in Fast and Furious weren’t doing anything illegal in purchasing multiple AK-47s and other weapons. Suspicion alone isn’t enough to arrest and prosecute a straw buyer, Newell said. Proof that the guns were ultimately destined for the cartels had to be obtained.)
This is not the first time Shurtleff has marched to his own political drum, as The Tribune noted recently. He recently announced his support for Richard Cordray to be director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, an agency created out of the Wall Street reform legislation that many conservatives dislike. Utah’s Republican senators, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, have said they will block Cordray’s confirmation because they think the new agency would hurt the economy.
Shurtleff was also highly critical of former United States Attorney Brett Tolman’s role in a flawed 2009 mass round-up of people suspected of plundering American Indian burial grounds for artifacts. Tolman was an appointee of President George W. Bush.
More recently, Shurtleff fended off an attempt by state legislators to insert themselves into the defense of a Utah immigration law facing a federal challenge. Shurtleff opposed the law and some lawmakers doubt his commitment to defending it.
“You would think a group of legislators who tout the Constitution as much as … these guys do would understand that the Utah Constitution prohibits them from” taking over the state Attorney General’s role, Shurtleff told the Salt Lake Tribune last month.
But the Salt Lake City area isn’t necessarily representative of Utah as a whole. Although no Democratic White House hopeful has carried the state since President Lyndon B. Johnson did so in 1964, Obama narrowly won Salt Lake County in 2008, even as his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, carried Utah by a two-to-one margin.
Mary Jacoby contributed to this report.
A defendant in a controversial federal case in Utah against people accused of illegally trafficking in stolen American Indian artifacts pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge Tuesday.
Brandon Laws originally had pleaded not guilty and denied that he tried to sell shell and bone necklaces and other American Indian items to a government informant. Laws admitted before U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart in Salt Lake City that he took the artifacts in March 2008 from the Figure 8 ruin in San Juan County, the Associated Press reported.
Three people connected to the case have committed suicide, including the informant.
More than 100 agents, including an FBI SWAT team, participated in the June 2009 roundup of 26 individuals who allegedly looted American Indian artifacts from public land. Although some agents reportedly had drawn guns, the raids were conducted without violence, except for one suspect who claimed his toe had been broken.
Utah officials — including the state’s U.S. senators — sharply criticized the raid, which unleashed tensions between state and local and federal officials.
The cases of about half of the individuals charged in connection with the June 2009 raid have yet to be resolved.
A former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer is under consideration for the Utah U.S. Attorney nomination, the Salt Lake City Weekly reported.
Brent Baker handled white-collar fraud cases during his 13 years at the SEC. He is currently a shareholder and member of the litigation department and securities litigation group at the law firm of Parsons Behle & Latimer in Salt Lake City. Read more about him here.
Baker declined comment to the news website, saying: “those kinds of decisions at the nomination process are left to the White House.” Scott Burns, a Republican and former county prosecutor from Iron County, Utah, is also reportedly under consideration for the U.S. Attorney post.
Utah Assistant U.S. Attorney David Schwendiman was once the leading candidate for the nomination. But the White House decided against nominating Schwendiman for the U.S. Attorney post last summer.
The White House and Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), who recommended Schwendiman, have remained mum on why the Assistant U.S. Attorney did not get the nod.
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News that the leading Utah U.S. Attorney candidate is out of the running to be the state’s top federal prosecutor has caused rampant speculation — but few solid leads — on what may have derailed his chances.
The White House declined to comment to The Salt Lake Tribune this week on why officials decided against nominating David Schwendiman to be U.S. Attorney. Schwendiman had been the leading candidate for the post. His candidacy was backed by Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah’s only Democratic member of Congress, and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
The Utah U.S. Attorney’s office released a statement last week making the White House’s decision public. In the same release, the office said Schwendiman will return as a senior litigation counsel. Schwendiman, who worked in the Utah U.S. Attorney’s office from 1987 to 2006, held that position before he became a war crimes prosecutor in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2006.
“Is this circumstance odd? A little,” Matheson spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend told the newspaper. “I guess it makes the White House action a little mysterious.”
White House officials notified Matheson that problems had come up with Schwendiman’s nomination during the vetting process, according to the newspaper. But they did not elaborate.
“The White House let Jim know a while back that there was a problem with the nomination,” Heyrend said. “He continued to hope and press for Schwendiman’s nomination.”
The newspaper said some legal and political experts are pointing fingers at Hatch for derailing the nomination. A representative from Hatch’s office denied the accusations in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Others alleged the White House wanted a minority or younger nominee, according to the newspaper. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office dismissed that suggestion as well.
Some speculated that President Barack Obama is attempting to reprimand Matheson, a conservative Democrat, for votes against bills backed by the White House, according to the newspaper. The House member’s spokeswoman said she doesn’t think the claim is true, noting Obama’s support for Matheson in a recent primary campaign.
Heyrend told the newspaper that Matheson will search for a new candidate, but he will look for guidance from the White House when moving forward.
A candidate for Utah U.S. Attorney said Thursday that the White House was no longer considering him to be the state’s top federal prosecutor.
David Schwendiman, who worked at the Salt Lake City-based U.S. Attorney’s office from 1987 to 2006, said in a statement that he is “grateful for the consideration” and is “fully committed to serving my country, my state, and the Department of Justice.” The prosecutor said he learned of the White House’s decision on Wednesday.
“I am honored to have been considered, but I understood from the outset that the choice of nominee is the prerogative of the President, and that the White House would make the final decision,” Schwendiman said.
Utah acting U.S. Attorney Carlie Christensen said the prosecutor will serve as the office’s senior litigation counsel — a position Schwendiman held before he became a war crimes prosecutor in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2006.
Christensen said in the statement she has the “greatest confidence in him and his abilities and character.”
“We are fortunate to have David working with us again to advance the mission of the office,” Christensen said. “He is an experienced and skilled prosecutor who will significantly contribute to the work of the department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office as he has done in the past.”
The Salt Lake Tribune first reported the story.
News reports surfaced in June 2009 that Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah’s only Democratic member of Congress, recommended Schwendiman to be U.S. Attorney. Schwendiman served as First Assistant U.S. Attorney under former U.S. Attorney Scott Matheson, the congressman’s older brother.
The Utah U.S. Attorney’s office recently lost three veteran prosecutors, The Salt Lake Tribune reported Wednesday.
Gregory Diamond, Richard Lambert and Stephen Sorenson retired in May after decades of service at the Salt Lake City-based U.S. Attorney’s office. The former Assistant U.S. Attorneys handled some of Utah’s biggest federal cases — including the Unabomber probe and a bombing of a Mormon church — in addition to other significant criminal and civil prosecutions.
“As a former career prosecutor, I always said that you could train a monkey to be a prosecutor, if you had enough bananas,” former U.S. Attorney Paul Warner, who is now a federal magistrate judge, told the newspaper. “The one exception to that adage is judgment. You can’t teach it, and it is the one quality that makes a great prosecutor. Each of these three men has outstanding judgment.”
Lambert joined the office in 1981, serving stints as Criminal Division Chief and Senior Litigation Counsel. The former prosecutor aided in the probe of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who sent some of his bombs to individuals in Utah. Lambert also helped prosecute a man who blew up a Latter Day Saints Church in 1988.
Diamond came to the office in 1985. He worked on a wide array of issues including drug, immigration and corruption cases. The prosecutor also handled Utah’s first federal “three strikes” case, in which a bank robber received a life sentence on his third conviction.
Sorenson arrived in the office in 1990, serving several years as First Assistant U.S. Attorney and prosecuting cases involving environmental issues.
Acting U.S. Attorney Carlie Christensen told the newspaper that the office “has been indelibly shaped” by the men’s work.
“But what distinguished these three extraordinary men is their profound and unerring sense of justice which they unfailingly sought to achieve each time they stepped into a courtroom,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Federal prosecutor Jeannette F. Swent is one of six people selected by the Utah Supreme Court Nominating Commission as candidates to replace retiring Justice Michael J. Wilkins, The Associated Press reported Wednesday. Wilkins will retire May 15.
Swent is the chief of the civil division at the Utah U.S. Attorney’s office. She was previously a candidate for a Utah Appeals Court vacancy in November 2009, but Gov. Gary Herbert (R) selected another candidate as the nominee.
The other fives nominees include David M. Connors, a state judge in Utah’s 2nd District; Royal I. Hansen, a state judge in Utah’s 3rd District; David Mortensen, a state judge in Utah’s 4th District; Thomas R. Lee, a lawyer and professor at Brigham Young University; and Carolyn B. McHugh, a Utah Appeals Court Judge.
The public now has 10 days to comment before the names are formally submitted to Herbert. After the comment period, Herbert will have 30 days to select a candidate. The state Senate must then vote within 60 days on whether to approve the nomination.
The suicide of an undercover operative may give about two dozen defendants in a controversial American Indian artifacts case the chance to quash the primary evidence in the government’s case against them, The Salt Lake Tribune reported Sunday.
Ted Dan Gardiner shot himself earlier this month, becoming the third person connected with the cases to commit suicide. During a two-year probe, he recorded thousands of hours of undercover video of people who allegedly sold illegally obtained American Indian artifacts. Most of the defendants are from the Four Corners area of Utah near the borders of Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
But the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, which gives criminal defendants the right to question witnesses, may put the video evidence in jeopardy.
“The premise of the Sixth Amendment is we have to subject the accuser to the crucible of cross-examination,” Kent Hart, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told the newspaper. “This really is a hot issue in the law right now.”
Defendant Brandon Laws has filed a motion to throw out the video evidence, which is key to the government’s case. U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart is slated to hear arguments on his motion Thursday.
Prosecutors have said Gardiner’s suicide will not hold up the trials of the defendants who were charged after a government raid. The raid was sharply criticized by Utah officials, including the state’s senators.
More than 100 agents, including an FBI SWAT team, participated in the June 2009 roundup of people who allegedly plundered American Indian artifacts from public land. Although some agents reportedly had drawn guns, the raids were carried out without violence, except for one suspect who claimed his toe had been broken.
The suicide of an undercover operative will not hold up trials against two dozen people arrested for selling illegally obtained American Indian artifacts, the Associated Press reported today.
Acting U.S. Attorney for Utah Carlie Christensen said she is certain that the cases will continue, according to the AP. U.S. Magistrate Samuel Alba set the first case for trial on May 3.
Ted Dan Gardiner shot himself on March 1, becoming the third person connected with the cases to commit suicide.
The Justice Department has been under fire for its handling of the two-year undercover probe that led to 26 indictments in the rural Four Corners area of Utah near the Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona borders.
More than 100 agents, including an FBI SWAT team, participated in the June 2009 roundup of people who allegedly plundered American Indian artifacts from public land. Although some agents reportedly had drawn their guns, the raids were carried out without violence, except for one suspect who claimed his toe had been broken.
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President Barack Obama tapped a former Utah U.S. Attorney for a seat on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the White House announced Wednesday.
Scott Matheson Jr., who served as U.S. Attorney from 1993 to 1997, would succeed Michael McConnell, who resigned last year. The ex-prosecutor is currently a professor at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, where he was once the dean. He was also a candidate in the state’s 2004 gubernatorial election. Read more about him here.
“Scott Matheson is a distinguished candidate for the Tenth Circuit court,” Obama said in a statement. “Both his legal and academic credentials are impressive and his commitment to judicial integrity is unwavering. I am honored to nominate this lifelong Utahn to the federal bench.”
The former U.S. Attorney is the brother of Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), who opposes Obama’s health care legislation. The Weekly Standard pondered whether Matheson’s nomination was made to “buy off his brother’s vote.”
Rep. Matheson’s spokeswoman, Alyson Heyrend, told Politico that the possibility was “patently ridiculous.” A White House official also told the newspaper the Weekly Standard’s hypothesis was “absurd.”
Both of Utah’s Republican senators, Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett, support his nomination, according to Politico.