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State audit shows Utah attorney general's office needs more ethics, transparency measures

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SALT LAKE CITY — As two former Utah attorneys general face charges of accepting improper gifts and other charges, Utah's top law enforcement office needs to be more transparent and offer whistleblower employees a way to anonymously report office wrongdoing, according to a report released Tuesday.

The report from the state legislative auditor's office said the problems predate current Attorney General Sean Reyes. Reyes took over in late 2013 after Republican John Swallow resigned amid a wave of investigations and accusations of misconduct.

Swallow and his predecessor, Republican Mark Shurtleff, now face charges of obstruction of justice and accepting improper gifts stemming from their combined 13 years running the attorney general's office. Shurtleff and Swallow have not yet entered pleas to the charges but deny wrongdoing.

The audits released Tuesday were requested by Utah lawmakers in 2013, but the reports were delayed amid turmoil and other investigations in the office.

One of those investigations, an in-depth probe by state lawmakers, found several employees raised concerns with Shurtleff and Swallow about the way lawsuits and other legal matters were handled. Those employees later told investigators that they had had known for years what was happening in the office was wrong but felt powerless to stop wrongdoing because it came directly from the top, according to a report released by lawmakers last year.

In a written response to the audit, Reyes said that while his administration offers ways for office whistleblowers to report wrongdoing, the office has not yet set up a system for workers to do that anonymously or report concerns about their superiors.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2014 file photo, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes stands outside the Utah Sate Capitol in Salt Lake City. As two former Utah attorneys general face charges of accepting improper gifts and other charges, Utah's top law enforcement office needs to be more transparent and offer whistleblower employees a way to anonymously report office wrongdoing, according to a report. The report from the state legislative auditor's office said the problems predate current Attorney General Sean Reyes. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2014 file photo, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes stands outside the Utah Sate Capitol in Salt Lake City. As two former Utah attorneys general face charges of accepting improper gifts and other charges, Utah's top law enforcement office needs to be more transparent and offer whistleblower employees a way to anonymously report office wrongdoing, according to a report. The report from the state legislative auditor's office said the problems predate current Attorney General Sean Reyes. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Gov. Gary Herbert said earlier this year that he was working with Reyes and state lawmakers to set up a new state office to investigate ethics and misconduct in state government, but the proposal never materialized.

With that idea shelved, Reyes said his office is once again looking to set up a similar system within his office.

The audit was presented to lawmakers on an audit subcommittee Tuesday and Brian Tarbett, the chief civil deputy in the attorney general's office, represented Reyes at the meeting.

Tarbett told The Associated Press afterward that the office realized it needed to offer more whistleblowing measures in the wake of the allegations surrounding Shurtleff and Swallow.

"You have to be able to trust the chain of command, and what happens if the chain of command is compromised? That's the problem," Tarbett said.

The audit released Tuesday also found that the attorney general's office needs to track office and employee performance, such as annual reviews and whether goals such as closing cases or keeping state agencies out of court are met. The office should also release annual public reports detailing what progress is made, the report said.

Auditors also said the office needs to set up a digital filing system rather than relying heavily on paper files, which have led to missed deadlines and dropped cases.

Reyes has previously spoken of a need for such a system and said Tuesday that the office has secured state funding to set up the system and is shopping for a contractor to set it up.

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