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Business as usual? A.G. Reyes’ campaign donations raise conflict-of-interest questions

First Published      Last Updated Jun 16 2017 09:12 pm

Sean Reyes has raised nearly $570,000 since taking office on a plat-form of integrity.

In the aftermath of a pay-for-play scandal that has his two predecessors facing multiple criminal charges, newly minted Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes vowed to take rigorous steps to guarantee no appearance of impropriety on his watch.

"While there may have been a 'For Sale' sign before on the door of the attorney general's office … there's a new sign since I've been there and it's, 'Beware of the Dog,' " Reyes said during a campaign debate last fall, promising to be a "bulldog when it comes to protecting the integrity of my office."

But a review of Reyes' donations since he took office roughly 18 months ago shows that can be easier said than done, with sometimes hard-to-detect agendas giving rise to potential conflicts of interest — or at least the appearance of conflicts.

Take, for example, the $65,000 Reyes has received from Sean Fieler, a New Jersey hedge-fund manager who has spread millions around to candidates who oppose the Common Core education standards and same-sex marriage.

Both of those issues have landed squarely in Reyes' office, with his attorneys spearheading the defense of Utah's same-sex marriage ban, which was struck down by the courts, and conducting a legal analysis of the Common Core as taught in Utah schools. A lawsuit by anti-Common Core activists against the state school board is pending.

Or there is the nearly $31,000 Reyes received from Washakie Renewable Energy and an executive in the company, Sally Kingston. The company is owned and operated by members of the Kingston polygamist clan, which has wide-reaching business interests and which former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff called an "organized-crime family" in a 2011 Rolling Stone interview. Shurtleff currently faces nine felony charges, including bribery and accepting gifts.

Washakie was recently fined $3 million by federal regulators for collecting and selling renewable-fuel credits for fuels it did not produce.

The company has not been subject to action by the state. The attorney general's office, however, is currently in court seeking to defend Utah's constitutional ban on polygamous marriages that has been in effect since statehood.

'Business as usual' • Joshua Kanter, founder and board president of the Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive good-government group, said those donations and others create an appearance of conflict or potential conflicts that are unnecessary, because Reyes, the GOP candidate in an overwhelmingly Republican state, didn't need to be so aggressive about fundraising to win his 2014 election.

Democrat Charles Stormont, an assistant attorney general, spent just $129,000 on his campaign to Reyes' $400,000, and went down to defeat by a 2-to-1 margin.

"Reyes, it seems to me, is in a particularly good position to say — and he did say — 'I'm going to clean up the office. I'm going to clean up the appearance.' But this is still the same old business as usual," Kanter said. "By no means am I suggesting that someone is going to go buy the attorney general's office for $5,000, but I think the responsibility lies with the attorney general to say either this is an actual conflict or could create an appearance of conflict."

Reyes declined to comment for this story.

But Alan Crooks, Reyes' campaign consultant, said the campaign is careful to screen every donor and noted there are whole industries — those that frequently have issues handled by the office — from whom Reyes has sworn off contributions altogether.

Gone are the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Reyes' predecessors — Shurtleff and his handpicked successor, John Swallow, who faces 13 felony counts — received from the payday-lending industry and business-coaching companies, allegedly in exchange for special treatment for those sectors.

"The attorney general's campaign team takes vetting all donations very seriously, regardless of the organization, individual or amount," Crooks said. "We research and review all incoming campaign revenue and will continue to do so."

Payday-lending interests used a series of nonprofits to funnel tens of thousands of dollars in dark money into ads attacking Reyes during his 2012 primary race against Swallow, who allegedly had promised to be a proponent of the lenders if elected. The source of the cash emerged in later investigations.

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