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GOP probe finds no wrongdoing in 2nd District chaos

Published May 8, 2012 10:28 pm

State's top Republican finds that there were no plots or conspiracies to smear Chris Stewart.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

A two-week investigation by the Utah Republican Party into a chaotic eruption at the party's state convention found no evidence of laws broken in the contentious 2nd Congressional District race and no indication of plots or conspiracies among candidates.

But the report, sent to 2nd District delegates Tuesday, leaves "unanswered questions" for at least one of the candidates, who remains convinced the contest was anything but pristine.

"There's a lot of strange things that have happened that there's still questions about and hopefully there will be answers still to come," said Howard Wallack, one of the defeated candidates. "I don't believe the candidates are just going to walk away from this. I owe it to my supporters and the people who made donations to my campaign ... to try to get to the bottom of what happened."

The report by Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright essentially clears any of the campaigns of wrongdoing, although it scolds one, Eureka Mayor Milt Hanks, for a fiery convention speech in which he accused four opponents of colluding to smear candidate Chris Stewart, who went on to win the GOP nomination.

"I have no doubt that many candidates and their supporters said and did things along the campaign trail in the heat of the moment they now regret. Most campaigns do," Wright said in the report. "But I have found no evidence that any laws were violated by any of the candidates or their campaigns."

The report says that Hanks' allegations that Wallack, former House Speaker David Clark, Cherilyn Eagar and Chuck Williams conspired against Stewart were baseless and that there was also no evidence to support the most sensational claim — that Hanks was a plant working to get Stewart elected.

Stewart did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Eagar said she considers the report an "accurate assessment," but said it doesn't put the issues to rest.

"I can't fault the party because, first of all, the party doesn't have the time or resources to be really delving into it. I think they did what they could and I think they have asked appropriate questions," said Eagar, who used the convention controversy in a recent fundraising solicitation. "I think it went a long way in helping people know that the four of us were not involved in that ... so we appreciate that."

Wright was asked by delegates to delve into the events after the 2nd District contest erupted into a firestorm of allegations and innuendo. The report chalks up the incident to the heated race and simple misunderstandings and states that the party supports Stewart as its nominee.

But Wright also said that Hanks, while acting "according to his conscience," did not consider the impact on the election and reputations of the other candidates when he made charges he could not prove.

"Mr. Hanks acted irresponsibly in accusing four candidates of misconduct with no evidence to support his claims," Wright said.

The report contains an apology from Hanks to the four candidates for making the claims.

"I spoke what I believe to be the truth based on conversations I had with other candidates," Hanks said. "It was unfair of me to not verify that my suspicions were true before making accusations during my speech. The party is better than this. Utah is better than this."

In an interview, Hanks was less contrite, but said he hopes the report puts an end to the episode.

"[The allegations] can neither be proven or disproven. … I think it came from that group, but I can't prove it," Hanks said. "I would have done the same thing had it been about any of the other candidates."

Hanks was a relatively unknown candidate in the race. A Brigham Young University survey of delegates found that just one of 276 surveyed supported him.

But in his speech at the Republican convention, Hanks unloaded a barrage of charges against Williams, Wallack, Eagar and Clark, accusing them of forming an "Anybody But Chris" club and conspiring to bring down Stewart by smearing his reputation.

Hanks waved an anonymous letter, which he claimed was sent to delegates and condemned the collusion.

The GOP's report said it was unable to determine who sent the letter, which Hanks said was given to him by an anonymous woman who approached him in a Provo mall. It is unclear how many delegates actually received the letter, which questioned Stewart's military record and his role in the "Temple Mailer," which two years ago sought to smear Mike Lee by making it appear he was questioning then-Sen. Bob Bennett's faith. It was, in fact, sent by Tim Stewart, Chris Stewart's brother, who was backing Bennett.

Wright said that, because the letter did not say who paid for it, it would be a violation of federal elections law and he urged anyone with information to come forward.

When Hanks finished his convention speech, he received a huge ovation and finished third in the first round of balloting with 121 votes.

The other campaigns were furious but had no way to immediately respond. During speeches before the second round of voting, Williams took to the microphone and called Stewart a "bold-faced liar" before being cut off. When his mic was turned back on, he dropped out of the race and threw his support to Clark.

Eagar returned to the mic and withdrew as well, as did Wallack, trying to force Stewart into a primary with Clark. In the end, Stewart clinched the 2nd District nomination by 13 votes.

In the interview, Hanks acknowledges that he spoke to Connie Smith, a friend and Juab County Party chairwoman who was working on the Stewart campaign, about the letter. But he said he doesn't recall when the conversation took place and doesn't think she knew what he planned for his speech. Smith refused to discuss the conversation last week, saying she wanted the issue to go away.

Wallack questions why Hanks would file to run after professing his support for Stewart, then not campaigning until the convention.

"Milt Hanks never called a delegate, never knocked on a door to my knowledge," Wallack said. "It's almost as though he got into this race for the specific purpose of this convention speech."

He points out that Hanks now says he can't remember which of the four candidates approached him about joining "Anybody But Chris" or had damaging information on Stewart. Wallack questions why the anonymous smear on Stewart was only mailed to a few delegates and how the Stewart campaign was able to amount an almost immediate response through a letter to all 973 delegates.

"It's physically impossible," Wallack said.

He suggested there are legal remedies available and said he expects that there will be complaints to the Federal Election Commission.

"I think it's really important that the public finds out what really happened, whether this was just one man doing it on his own on some kind of crusade or if there were other people involved," Wallack said.

Wright said that he would ask the Republican Party to review its rules for future conventions to decide if campaigns that are criticized during convention speeches should have an opportunity to respond, as well as other potential logistical changes.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke