Court withholds Envision Ogden documents
In his quest for key information about an elusive organization that funneled money from Envision Ogden to the city's heated political campaigns in 2007, government watchdog Dan Schroeder hit a dead end in court Friday.
"I was hoping to find out who signed the payment checks on behalf of Friends of Northern Utah Real Estate (FNURE)," Schroeder said following the judge's ruling that kept almost everything he had sought off-limits, with the exception of a two-page list from Wells Fargo that contained very little information.
Schroeder represented himself and went head-to-head with Assistant Attorney General Patrick Nolan in Judge Keith Kelly's 3rd District courtroom. Both sides, for opposing reasons, were appealing the decision handed down by the State Records Committee in August 2011 to release a Post-It Note, Quicken report and a Wells Fargo bank account application for the nonprofit Envision Ogden.
Both the Post-It Note and the Quicken document, compiled by an investigator working for the AG's office from hundreds of bank transactions. Nolan argued that since they were generated in connection with a criminal investigation, they should be kept private as attorney work product. Kelly agreed.
The drama dates back to January 2007, when Envision Ogden was launched to boost business-in the northern Utah city.
The office of former Mayor Matthew Godfrey solicited most of the $87,000 in donations to Envision Ogden, some coming from entities with internal policies barring them from contributing to political campaigns.
That same year about $20,000 in Envision Ogden funds took a circuitous route through FNURE, an unregistered entity, to end up in the campaign coffers of City Council candidates Blain Johnson and Royal Eccles. Godfrey's re-election received funds directly from Envision Ogden, as did Jeremy Peterson's 2008 state-house campaign.
In December 2008, Envision Ogden registered as a political action committee, then, before its dissolution, cleared its account by giving $3,452 to the state Republican Party.
All totaled, more than one-third of the $87,000 raised in 2007 went to political purposes.
In March 2009, then Rep. Neil Hansen, D-Ogden, asked the state Attorney General's Office to investigate the matter. That duty was handed off to the Department of Public Safety, which issued its findings in a July 2009 report that raised several questions but lacked enough evidence to bring charges. The Attorney General's Office reopened the probe in November 2010, only to close it in March 2011, saying there was not sufficient evidence to prosecute anyone.
But Schroeder and others remained unsatisfied.
On Friday, Schroeder argued that there was significant public interest in the apparent campaign scandal.
"My goal here is to tell the story of what Envision Ogden did," Schroeder said.
A state Supreme Court ruling, State v. Thompson, gives bank customers the right to privacy, Nolan argued. "We have to defend that and honor that," he said."We're not in the business of giving up somebody else's bank records under a GRAMA request just because somebody claims to have an interest in seeing what they say."
As he issued his ruling, Kelly commended Schroeder.
"Our government and our way of life is helped by people like the petitioner Mr. Schroeder who wants to hold government accountable for its actions," Kelly said.
However, he considered the right to attorney work product and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure as guaranteed by the state Constitution to outweigh the public's need to know.
"It's reasonable for the Attorney General's Office to obtain bank records to assist in its investigation," Kelly said. "It would become patently unreasonable if that office turned those records over to the public when . . . they're not used as evidence in a court proceeding."
Leaving court Friday, Schroeder said he has no plans to file an appeal.