With the state's blessing, a portion of the abstinence grant money was used to outfit eight hockey teams and two basketball teams at the youth clubs with balls, hockey sticks and pucks.
That $800 expenditure is now coming back to haunt Leavitt as he heads into back-to-back Senate confirmation hearings beginning Tuesday as President Bush's nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary.
And the criticism of the Republican nominee is coming from an unexpected source: pro-family organizations, which normally side with the Bush White House.
Two major conservative Christian groups, Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, recently issued alerts to their thousands of members nationwide questioning whether Leavitt is a "true conservative," whether he will be a strong anti-abortion advocate and whether he will weaken the abstinence-only education program administered by HHS.
"On the surface, Leavitt appears to be in a position, based on his past actions, where he would stand in contradiction to where the president is on these issues," Peter Brandt, senior director of government and public policy at the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, said in a statement.
Added Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council: "Leavitt's past decisions raise legitimate questions about where he will be on these key value issues in the future if confirmed."
The shots across Leavitt's bow by the groups demonstrate not only the increased scrutiny he is under at the national level but also the new political minefield he is entering as HHS secretary. Unlike the nature vs. industry battles he has presided over in his current position as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Leavitt's new role as head of the nation's health bureaucracy puts him directly in the blast zone of several divisive ethical, moral and social issues: cloning, embryonic stem-cell research, abortion, family planning, sexual abstinence and gay marriage.
To most observers, Leavitt would seem to be in lockstep with conservative Republican ideology. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Leavitt was a popular governor in one of the nation's most conservative states. He hired his own attorney to combat legal challenges to Utah's 1991 anti-abortion law, signed the law establishing the nation's first smut-hunting "porn czar," set up a state-funded commission on marriage and created a privately funded commission that blanketed the state with billboards, radio advertisements and classroom brochures stressing the importance of values.
But that record doesn't mollify the Washington-based Family Research Council, which opened a message to members titled "Leavitt Leaves Questions" last month with this disclaimer: "It is not a secret that many conservative organizations were in support of a true conservative to take over for departing [HHS Secretary] Tommy Thompson."
John Green, an expert on right-wing politics at the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron in Ohio, said advocacy groups are naturally strident in their analysis of nominees' records.
"The pro-family groups, many of them, tend to be very purist because they operate out of a religious basis with a strong sense of eternal right or wrong," said Green. "Part of this is tactical, too, laying down markers and sending a message to Secretary Leavitt that says, 'Be careful how you handle these issues because if you aren't, we'll be on your back.' "
Family Research Council and Focus on the Family are critical of the Leavitt administration's 1998 authorization to use abstinence education grant funds for recreational sports, his decision to drop the state's losing federal court battle to uphold Utah's anti-abortion law, and his veto of a bill passed by the 2000 Utah Legislature that would have mandated abstinence-only be taught in Utah schools' sex education classes.
"His history leaves us somewhat uneasy as to where he will be when it comes to these important programs," said Brandt of Focus on the Family.
But Gayle Ruzicka, a longtime legislative lobbyist for the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, says the national criticism of Leavitt's record is off base.
"We are going to have a friend at HHS with Mike Leavitt and I hope these pro-family groups I usually agree with and work with will back off," Ruzicka said.
While she had never heard about the state using abstinence education grants for youth sports leagues, Ruzicka defended Leavitt's 2000 veto of the abstinence-only bill and his decision not to go to the mat for the state's anti-abortion law.
"Was I upset with his veto? Yes. But the next year he kept his word and signed a bill we liked even better that gave school districts more rights," said Ruzicka.