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Chaffetz’s unsubstantiated claim of out-of-state professional agitators fuels more anger

First Published      Last Updated Jul 01 2017 06:13 pm

Clashing constituents » Chaffetz sticks to claim of paid demonstrators at his town-hall meeting, though he acknowledges that most of its attendees were Utahns.

Washington • Some Utahns, outraged at Rep. Jason Chaffetz's unsubstantiated claim that paid protesters infiltrated his raucous town-hall meeting last week, have begun to send invoices to the congressman. If he says they got money for showing up, he should foot the bill, they argue.

Shauna Ehninger's invoice sent to Chaffetz's office totaled $1,070, including $200 for two hours each of waiting in line and attending the town hall — including time for hearing "condescending responses" — $100 for distributing "fake news" and $100 for being an "out-of-state radical." Oh, and $70 for taxes.

"I am getting really sick of being referred to as a paid protester for simply standing up to this administration," Ehninger, who lives in Sandy, said Monday. "As a constituent of Chaffetz's district, I am offended that he would dismiss our opposing opinions with such a ridiculous claim and wanted to call this out."

She faxed an invoice to Chaffetz's Washington office because, "He needs to understand that his job is listening to us when we speak up rather than dismissing us with blatant lies."

The bill, along the others, isn't likely to be paid.

Chaffetz, who says he'll continue to do town halls even after facing a barrage of criticism at Thursday's packed meeting in Cottonwood Heights, said Monday he still believes there were paid protesters, though he acknowledged that it wasn't a dominating force inside the auditorium.

"The overwhelming majority of people there were Utahns; they weren't paid," Chaffetz said. "But I do believe there was a concerted, national effort, some of which was paid, to get people there to cause a problem."

Chaffetz said he was told by police that the first people in line for his town hall were from Wyoming. The first three people at the front of the line — interviewed by a Tribune reporter — were Bill Willett, of South Salt Lake; Brendan O'Leary, of Sandy; and Erin Lipovich, of Holladay.

Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby Russo said the number of any out-of-state attendees was "not a considerable amount."

"There were several who said they were from Oregon, Nevada, Wyoming," he said. "Certainly, they had every right to be there and none of them were causing trouble."

About three or four people, he added, wore bandanas covering their faces and carried guns. They tried to incite the crowd, rushed at the officers guarding the doors and searched for Chaffetz's car at the back of the school.

"They exercised their open-carry right," Russo said. "They can do that. But it's obviously a challenge for us."

One woman was also ticketed for public disturbance and police drove her home. Russo said the crowd was otherwise "loud and passionate, but they were lawful."

Chaffetz says he'll do more in-person meetings with groups in addition to tele-town halls and other efforts to interact with constituents. He says Thursday's town hall became more of a venting session.

"I want to be able to listen and interact," he said. "That was more of an opportunity for them to yell and scream. I hope that was healthy for them. I hear what they're saying."

It's unclear if any of Utah's five other members of Congress will meet voters in a similar venue.

Utahns Speak Out, a local resistance group, has delivered petitions asking each member of the state's delegation to hold town-hall meetings. They've also organized a Feb. 24 town hall of their own — with invitations sent to Utah's senators and representatives. The 7 p.m. event will be held at Cottonwood High School.

"It is our hope that this movement will foster a greater dialogue about accountability and accessibility within the Utah political realm," the organizers said in an emailed statement.

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