Utah Attorney General reflects on 12 years in office

Posted at 8:38 PM, Dec 27, 2012
and last updated 2012-12-28 01:02:39-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- Green Post-It notes litter the Attorney General's Office at the Utah State Capitol.

They're on mementos that Mark Shurtleff has accumulated in his 12 years as the state's top attorney. Boxes are also stacking up in his office as he prepares to move out after three terms in office.

"I'm excited for a new page, a new chapter," Shurtleff said while holding his grandkids in his lap. "But I am going to miss serving the public."

In a wide-ranging interview with FOX 13 on Thursday, Shurtleff looked back on his time in office with a sense of accomplishment.

"There are so many different things we tackled, our priorities with each new term," he said. "Like methamphetamine -- we led the nation, and within four years we got that cut down by 98 percent. Then we moved on to things like prescription drug abuse. Internet crimes against children is one of the things we championed."

Shurtleff said he is also proud of his work on immigration reform and the creation of an AMBER Alert system in Utah. Asked if he was leaving office with any regrets and he said he had a few. One is the ongoing legal war over land in the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

"It's such a mess down there right now and I wish I had time to clean it up," Shurtleff said.

His years in office took its toll on his health and his family. Shurtleff abruptly dropped out of a race for U.S. Senate to take care of his daughter, who had been dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. While in office, he successfully fought cancer and nearly lost his leg after a motorcycle crash. He underwent numerous surgeries, and the recovery from that crash, he said, left him with a dependency on prescription drugs.

"I was on painkillers for a year-and-a-half," Shurtleff told FOX 13. "I was addicted, or dependent on pain meds. I went through withdrawal to get off of them. It blows me away how difficult it is for someone to get off a drug habit."

The attorney general insists he never abused his prescriptions, but he said he came to realize he had a dependency on them.

"In my mind I was tapering off those painkillers. But one day I came home and my wife had thrown them away," Shurtleff said. "I was tapering off. She said, 'Well, you weren't doing it fast enough. You're done. It's the weekend, I'll take the kids.' I was sick for three days and I was only on ten milligrams of Oxycontin and Oxycodone for breakthrough pain."

The experience, he said, gave him more empathy for people facing drug problems. He said in the interview Thursday he believed more resources needed to be devoted in the court system to rehabilitation for people seeking recovery.

This is not the first time Shurtleff has taken an unlikely stance on a controversial topic. Sometimes unconventional, the attorney general has been known for being outspoken and even bucking his own Republican party with his positions on things like hate crimes legislation, First Amendment issues and immigration. He has earned both praise and scorn from conservatives and liberals alike for his stances.

Shurtleff pointed to the scales of justice when asked to explain the legacy he leaves behind.

"I did the right thing, I believe, for the right reason without concern for the politics or controversies of the day. I tried to do the right thing. Did I always do the right thing? I probably made mistakes. Clearly, I'm human," Shurtleff told FOX 13.

"But I do want to be remembered as someone who did the best he could and served the public, and that was what it was all about at the end of the day was serving the public."

After he leaves office next week, Shurtleff will work in Washington, D.C., for a law firm. He also said he plans to write some more books (including one about polygamy in Utah). He would not rule out a return to public office with a run for U.S. Senate, but said he does not have any immediate plans for that.

"Maybe someday if there's an opening there, if I've been out in the private sector for a while, I may take a look at it," he said. "But no plans right now."