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(Tribune file photo) Former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist is seeking to unseat Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch but faces a tough challenge in the June 26 primary.
Mystery donors to political groups seek to sway Utah voters

First Published Mar 10 2012 08:08 pm • Last Updated Jun 25 2012 11:34 pm

Washington » The people behind Freedom Path don’t want you to know who they are or who’s giving them money. What they want is for you to re-elect Sen. Orrin Hatch.

This shadowy group, funded by secret donors, has produced a series of ads that either promote the senator or attack his Republican rivals.

At a glance

Outside spending

Political organizations are spending big to persuade Utah voters to either re-elect Sen. Orrin Hatch or give an upstart Republican a chance to take his spot in Washington.

Here are the groups and how much they have spent so far:

FreedomWorks

Purpose » Opposes Hatch

Amount » $571,000

Purchased » TV and radio ad, mailings, polls

Freedom Path

Purpose » Supports Hatch

Amount » $280,000

Purchased » TV ads, mailings

National Rifle Association PAC

Purpose » Supports Hatch

Amount » $13,500

Purchased » Mailer

American College of Radiology PAC

Purpose » Supports Hatch

Amount » $77,000

Purchased » Mailers

Source: Federal Election Commission

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Hatch says he knows little about Freedom Path and has nothing to do with it, but a Salt Lake Tribune investigation has uncovered strong ties between this organization and the senator.

Freedom Path is loaded with former employees of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of sitting GOP senators. And these employees worked at the NRSC when Hatch was named the vice chairman in 2008.

Mike and Lindsey Slanker, of Las Vegas, were among them. Mike Slanker now makes Freedom Path’s ads, while at the same time owning a company providing online assistance to Hatch’s campaign. And his wife, Lindsey, is a paid fundraiser for the senator.

These links illustrate the new world of campaign finance, where court rulings have allowed outside groups to raise and spend unlimited money but only if they keep the candidate at arm’s length.

Super political action committees, many with similar ties to the politicians they support, have dominated the presidential race, often spending more on advertising than the candidates themselves.

Freedom Path isn’t exactly a super PAC. It’s a tax-exempt nonprofit. This legal distinction means the group never has to identify its contributors no matter how much the companies and individuals give.

Former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, one of Hatch’s opponents, has been Freedom Path’s primary target. He isn’t calling for the group to get out of the race, but he does want to know who’s behind the attacks.

"I think organizations have just as much right as people to participate in politics, but there should be visibility on who is funding them and where that money is coming from," said Liljenquist.


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Government watchdogs, such as Fred Wertheimer, take a stronger stance.

"The most dangerous money in American politics is unlimited contributions and/or secret money, because they are vehicles for buying influence over government decisions," said Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group advocating for stricter campaign finance controls. "The money they are using to finance campaign expenditures needs to be disclosed in order to defend against corruption."

Freedom Path isn’t the only outside group weighing in on Utah’s Senate race or the only one shielding its donors from the public. The American Action Network, a prominent national GOP group led by former Sen. Norm Coleman, also produced an ad slamming Liljenquist, while the tea party-fueled FreedomWorks has been running a Retire Hatch campaign for months.

But the pro-Hatch Freedom Path is the only one that has gone to considerable lengths to preserve the anonymity of its employees, board of directors and donors.

­—

Anonymous » Finding any information on Freedom Path is difficult. The group has a Salt Lake City address, but it’s a virtual office shared by a number of companies. Phone calls go directly to a generic voice mail. Its website includes no names.

As a nonprofit, it legally must have a board of directors, identified on publicly available documents. But in reaction to a Tribune records request, the IRS says it has "no record of tax-exempt status." That could mean Freedom Path hasn’t filed yet, has sought an extension or the IRS has questions about its application. The IRS has started to review such applications more closely, causing some groups to complain that the probes are politically motivated. (See story on A15.)

The only known person directly associated with Freedom Path is J. Scott Bensing, a Nevada lobbyist whose name appears on the group’s scant filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Bensing said he incorporated the group in January 2011 and its IRS filing is pending. He said he’s a member of the board but refused to divulge any other participants.

"The other board members are Utahns and value their privacy," he said.

Beyond Freedom Path, Bensing appeared to have two lobbying clients — the Nevada Department of Transportation and Zuffa Inc., parent company for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Zuffa is a major Hatch supporter, with its executives and affiliated employees contributing $58,000 to the senator’s re-election effort.

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