Did Utah legislators violate rule on contributions?
Published: March 31, 2013 09:24AM
Updated: May 31, 2013 11:38PM
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Scott Sommerdorf l Tribune file photo Rep. Derek Brown, R-Cottonwood Heights

An apparent violation of a law banning legislators from raising money during the session has state election officials in a quandary.

After the legislative session ended March 14, the Thomas Paine Common Sense PAC — which is run by two House members and a former representative — filed a report showing 10 contributions totaling $1,975 coming during the 45-day session.

Under a Utah law that prohibits giving money to legislators or a PAC “controlled” by legislators during the session, the donors could be charged with a class A misdemeanor.

In this instance, however, all 10 of the donors are legislators, who were kicking in money to hire a research assistant to help them analyze and study the hundreds of bills introduced during the session.

“There’s no willful attempt to undermine the law. Otherwise why would you have reported contributions during the session?” said Rep. Derek Brown, R-Cottonwood Heights, one of the PAC’s two primary officers.

If the group had wanted to, Brown said, it could have pooled its resources without filing, since it wasn’t a campaign-related expense.

“The reason we [formed a PAC] was just to make it transparent,” he said. “The irony, of course, is if we had been less transparent, this wouldn’t have been an issue.”

Mark Thomas, the state elections administrator, said the office is looking into the filing, but criminal charges are not likely.

“Our options are we could do an administrative penalty” of up to $1,000, Thomas said. “We could just send a letter out reminding them to be careful of the law. Or we could send it over to the attorney general and say that the statute indicates a class A misdemeanor … which I’d be surprised if anyone picks that up.”

Thomas said three of the legislators who were reported as having given money during the session said they wrote their checks before the session, but seven appear to fall inside the 45-day blackout.

The group made the same violation in its 2012 filing, but it was not caught by the lieutenant governor’s office at the time. Thomas said it marks the first time he can recall a violation of the ban on contributions during the session.

The in-session prohibition is among the issues legislators are asked about in an ethics quiz they must complete each session.

The Thomas Paine Common Sense PAC was set up in 2012 — the name a gentle poke at the more bellicose Patrick Henry Caucus — after several freshman legislators were frustrated a year earlier with their inability to keep up with the legislation moving in the final days of the session.

Brown said they hired a research assistant to drill down on certain bills, contact the parties that might be affected and learn more about the genesis and practical impacts of legislation.

“Truly the intent was … to do a better job of vetting these bills and really having some good discussion, void of lobbyists who, maybe they’re being honest or maybe they’re not,” said David Butterfield, a former Logan House member who helped start the effort.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke