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A peek at who's behind pro-Hatch nonprofit group

Published May 3, 2012 11:08 am

Two board members of Freedom Path have Utah ties.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Federal filings name the Utahns behind the secretive political organization that has spent heavily to promote Sen. Orrin Hatch's re-election bid.

Freedom Path is largely run by political operatives in Nevada, but has two previously undisclosed board members who hail from the Beehive State. They are Mark Emerson, a former Hatch aide and one-time congressional candidate, and Steve Troop, an escrow agent for a Draper title company.

Neither would answer questions from The Salt Lake Tribune, instead directing requests to Scott Bensing, the other board member, who once worked with Hatch at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Bensing wouldn't say much either, only confirming that the three comprise the board, which uses IRS nonprofit rules to keep its donors anonymous, and that Freedom Path will remain active through Hatch's primary fight against former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.

"We are continually evaluating issues important to us in Utah," Bensing said, "and expect to continue our activity through the end of June."

So far, the political nonprofit has spent more than $570,000 on television ads that either promote Hatch or attack his Republican challenger. Recent campaign disclosure forms required the group to list its board members.

Freedom Path's spending is topped by that of FreedomWorks, the tea party group that has endorsed Liljenquist and has dumped $781,000 into its effort to "retire Hatch."

FreedomWorks for America is a super political-action committee. Like a political nonprofit, it can accept donations of any amount but, unlike a nonprofit, must disclose its donors. Even so, FreedomWorks has also obscured the source of its funding by transferring big amounts from its parent company to its super PAC.

FreedomWorks, based in Washington, D.C., is a well-known conservative group led by former House Speaker Dick Armey. It opposed then-Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, in his failed 2010 re-election bid and is now working against not only Hatch, but also longtime Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind.

Freedom Path appears to have been created to boost Hatch. Almost every member of its staff, from Bensing to its advertising team to its lawyers, worked for former Nevada Sen. John Ensign at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which supports incumbent Republicans. Ensign tapped Hatch to serve as the vice chairman of the NRSC, a role he still fulfills.

The Hatch campaign employs some of the same vendors as Freedom Path.

Emerson, the board member from Utah, has worked for Hatch and Ensign. Hatch's campaign manager called him "a blast from the past."

He worked for Hatch's Senate office before taking a job as chief of staff to Ensign, when he was in the House. Emerson also served as chief of staff to then-Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, and executive director to the Utah Republican Party. He ran against then-Rep. Merrill Cook in 2000, but did not win the GOP nomination.

Troop, who earned a bachelor's degree from Weber State University, appears to be little known in Utah political circles and has no direct ties to Ensign or Hatch. He works as an escrow officer for Unity Title. He has previously worked for the Utah Blaze arena football team as an assistant equipment manager, according to his résumé on LinkedIn.

Freedom Path isn't the only outside group helping Hatch. A fledgling super PAC is hitting up the senator's donors in a bid to raise cash to run TV ads before the June 26 primary.

The Strong Utah PAC, run by Salt Lake City advertising executive Kelly Casaday, has sent a fundraising letter highlighting FreedomWorks' opposition to Hatch.

"I know that you have given generously in the past to assist Sen. Hatch," the solicitation reads, "and hope that I can count on you to help one more time."

Unlike Freedom Path, Casaday said, any Strong Utah PAC ads would highlight Hatch accomplishments and take no shot at Liljenquist. The group has spent $8,000 on the race so far.

"We don't think we need to do anything," Casaday said, "to damage his opponent."

mcanham@sltrib.comTwitter: @mattcanham