A prosecutor’s job is to convict criminals, get them off the street and into a place where they will do no harm, and, with any luck, change their ways.
But prosecutors also carry a much larger burden: Find the truth. They must pursue that elusive ideal without fear of, or favor toward, the powerful. That mission becomes especially hard when the path points to possible wrongdoing by someone who is supposed to be on the same side of the law as they are.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill found himself in that uncomfortable place in 2013. Not once, but twice.
Time will tell how allegations of influence peddling by former Utah Attorney General John Swallow and his predecessor, Mark Shurtleff, develop. Same goes for potential criminal charges in the shooting death of Danielle Willard by West Valley City narcotics detectives, a shooting Gill ruled unjustified.
But in the case of West Valley City, the Salt Lake County prosecutor has pulled back the sheet covering a culture of what could be law enforcement incompetence at best, criminal wrongdoing at worst.
In the wake of the Willard shooting, and the district attorney’s dismissal of more than 110 drug cases because of investigative irregularities, the new police chief is taking a hard look at how things have been done in Utah’s second largest city, auditing more than 1,300 criminal cases. West Valley City can’t help but emerge as a better place to live, visit and do business.
Gill spent the past 12 months asking tough questions to shine a light on two of the biggest Utah stories of 2013, stories about abuses of power.
For that, he is The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utahn of the Year.
Sim Gill grew up in Utah, graduating from Kearns High School and the University of Utah before earning a law degree from Lewis and Clark in Portland, Ore.
But his path to a career in law and order started in a small village in India, where, as an 8-year-old, he witnessed a neighbor being wrongly arrested and beaten for stealing jewelry. Gill remembers wondering: Who polices the police?
Ironically, that experience would be used against him when, after a nine-month investigation, he ruled that West Valley City officers were not in personal danger when they shot and killed the unarmed Danielle Willard.
First it was the officers’ attorneys who made personal attacks on Gill, but the rhetoric soon turned political when the Salt Lake County GOP chairman proclaimed that the Democratic D.A.’s boyhood experiences had made him soft on criminals. “It might simply be that Sim is a cop hater,” Chad Bennion surmised.
Gill’s cool response: “At the end of the day, it is the facts and the evidence at hand that drive the situation. Nobody is above the law.”
With the Swallow investigation, Gill knowingly entered tricky political water — mitigated by the fact that his partner, Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings, is a Republican and the FBI and the Utah Department of Public Safety are assisting.
Gill and Rawlings are leading one of five investigations of Swallow with allegations involving bribery, extortion and influence peddling. The U.S. Justice Department ended its probe in September, announcing it would not file charges against Swallow or Shurtleff. An inquiry by the lieutenant governor’s office determined Swallow committed five election-law violations. But the attorney general’s resignation precluded any further action.
A Utah House investigation of Swallow is wrapping up after two days of stunning revelations as special counsel Steve Reich and his investigative team told of Swallow falsifying calendar entries to cover up his relationship with indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson, and that Swallow gave preferential treatment to big campaign donors and went to great lengths to keep those relationships from public scrutiny.
Now, only the investigation by Gill and Rawlings continues, and presumably it will be up to them to follow up on the information ferreted out by the House probe. Two weeks ago they filed charges against a central player in the scandal, Tim Lawson, a close associate of Shurtleff with ties to Swallow as well. Lawson was charged with six felonies, accusing him of tax evasion, retaliating against witnesses, obstruction of justice and a pattern of unlawful activity.
Gill and Rawlings can’t say where their investigation will lead. But the fact that charges have been filed shows that a couple of watchdogs are on the case, watchdogs with some teeth.
Sim Gill likely would tell you that what he has done in 2013 is nothing out of the ordinary; he’s doing his job. In the past, he has said precisely that when someone attempted a compliment. He knows the job is bigger than he is. He describes his role as a “temporary caretaker” who serves at the will of the public.
“It’s never my office,” he told Tribune reporter Jennifer Napier-Pearce last week. “It is really your office and you just give me the privilege to tend it for a period of time.”
He showed similar deference when asked about sanctioning Salt Lake County marriage certificates in the wake of U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby declaring Utah’s same-sex ban to be unconstitutional.