Photo/Dennis Myers After a Utah criminal prosecution accused him of nothing, commentators on the right have implied U.S. Sen. Harry Reid is being protected by the Obama administration.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s name is figuring in a developing courtroom battle in Utah.

On July 15, former Utah attorneys general John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff were arrested and charged with crimes like destruction of evidence and acceptance of bribes. Swallow was further accused of receiving $23,000 from Richard Rawle, who he introduced to federally indicted businessman Jeremy Johnson as someone who could assist in getting Reid to help with a Federal Trade Commission investigation into Johnson’s marketing company. “I talked with John Swallow, and he said you might have some connections to Reid that might be helpful to us,” Johnson wrote in an email to Rawle cited in the indictment. Rawle is now deceased.

In a statement in January released by his office, Reid said, “The allegations of bribery by Mr. Johnson, a man with a background of fraud, deception and corruption, are absurd and utterly false.” A Reid aide reiterated that posture last week.

The court filings describe Reid as essentially a passive figure in the case—as a target of wrongdoing, not a wrongdoer. He was so portrayed in most mainstream news coverage. But he could still be damaged, because some opinion entities and an occasional mainstream source—in reports filled with emotionally loaded terms and suggestive language—projected the available information far beyond its actual meaning. For example, an Associated Press story on the case included the line, “Reid has not been implicated in the investigation.” But a Washington Times story that tried hard to build a case against Reid did not include a similar description of the indictments.

The indictments followed months in which the case was shuttled around in the Beehive State. While the crimes being prosecuted are state offenses, local district attorneys did not initially act, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) took itself off the case in September, and the current Utah attorney general also declined the case. So the Utah Legislature mounted an investigation. It was not explained why the lawmakers didn’t leave the case to the local district attorneys—who ultimately were forced to act—but partisans were quick to suggest that the Obama administration refused the case to protect Reid. The issue has become prominent enough that the National Law Journal did a story on that aspect of the case.

There was wide comment on alleged inertia on the part of the DOJ in joining the case. In a state whose officials normally object to federal authority, local prosecutors have been critical of the failure of the U.S. Department of Justice to step into the case.

“I’d be less than honest with you if I didn’t say to you that I have actually been very disappointed with what the DOJ did or didn’t do,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Simarjit Gill, a Democrat. “Really, this case should not be something that we should be prosecuting as local prosecutors.”

The charges were announced by Gill and Davis County District Attorney Troy Rawlings at the Salt Lake City office of the FBI, which itself drew comment since no federal prosecution is underway. One report suggested the FBI was trying to give its imprimatur to the case in spite of the DOJ’s stance.

A considerable amount of media coverage tries to link Reid negatively to the case. Not surprisingly, a lot of that kind of coverage was produced by conservative opinion sites, such as NewsBusters (“ABC Investigates Bribery Case Ensnaring Harry Reid…”) and Washington Free Beacon (“Harry Reid Tied to Corruption Investigation”).

Contrasts

Reid’s role, if any, has received considerably more attention in national and D.C. media entities than where the case is happening—Utah. In a lengthy Salt Lake Tribune story describing the case, Reid’s name received a single mention in paragraph 19 of the story, a paragraph dealing with the one count of the indictment that mentions him. In an ABC News story, by contrast, Reid is referenced in the first sentence—and nine more times throughout the story.

The Unification Church’s Washington Times newspaper allowed its editor John Solomon—long faulted by press critics for his factually challenged stories on Reid (“Solomon-like reporting,” RN&R, Nov. 23, 2006)—to cover the Utah story.

The Columbia Journalism Review has reported that journalists working for Solomon say “he often pressured them to mold the truth to his vision of the story” and that in one story accusing Reid of serving disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff on two legislative issues, Solomon “failed to mention … that Reid stuck to his longstanding position on both issues—meaning that any implications of influence peddling were bogus.” When working for the Washington Post, Solomon targeted Reid on major alleged exposés that failed to close the deal—“’gotcha’ without the gotcha,” the Post’s ombudsman put it.

Solomon put Reid in the lead sentence of his story: “Utah prosecutors on Tuesday filed criminal charges against two former state attorneys general in a court filing that makes tantalizing references to a possible pay-to-play influence scheme involving U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.”

By contrast, another church-owned newspaper—the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, on the scene of the story—left its first mention of Reid to paragraph 23, one of just two mentions of the Nevada senator in the 60-paragraph story. The newspaper is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Solomon story mentioned Reid in the headline (“Harry Reid’s name surfaces in Utah bribery case against two former attorneys general”), but not Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, referenced in a similar context in the court filings, who actually met with Johnson.

While Reid is not accused of anything, he could end up being nibbled to death by ducks in the dispute. He faces the kind of situation that plagued another Nevada senator in 1982. A Teamsters Union president and four other men were on trial for trying to bribe U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon of Nevada, who chaired the Senate Commerce Committee and—until Reid’s rise—was the most powerful senator from the Silver State. Cannon was never accused of wrongdoing, but the steady drumbeat of daily news coverage of the sordid testimony from the trial in Chicago was lethal to his reputation. Cannon ended up losing reelection in the November election that occurred right in the middle of the trial. He lost to a much lesser known Republican, Chic Hecht, whose subsequent Senate career became legendary for its one-term exposition of his limitations.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...