Robert Gehrke: Salt Lake City’s Wild West campaign finance rules need a major overhaul and more enforcement

Robert Gehrke

After the results in the Salt Lake City mayoral primary flipped against him Thursday, Jim Dabakis stood in front of TV cameras — his natural habitat — to concede a defeat that came as a surprise to many.

He also used it as an opportunity to blast the “big swamp in Salt Lake City.” He was referring to outside, unreported money sloshing around in the city elections.

“I simply said ‘No,’ and I did it loudly to all the sleazy ones who came up and said, ‘Set up a PAC and we’ll do this for you,’ ” Dabakis said.

“I would rather lose by telling the son of a bitches no, keep your damn money, I don’t want anything to do with it, than win and be off in a corner,” he said on KUTV. “There was hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars out there. I made it a crusade not just to say no, but hell no.”

It may have a hint of sour grapes, but it’s also something he has been talking about for weeks.

And he’s not wrong. Salt Lake City elections are the wild, Wild West when it comes to campaign finance.

In fact, it would be hard to come up with a worse system to ensure accountability if you tried.

It’s true, there are contribution caps. No person or business or political action committee can give more than $3,560 to a mayoral candidate or $760 to a City Council candidate. That’s something, and it’s a lot more than the state does.

But remember “Jurassic Park,” when Jeff Goldblum, the scientist, said “Life finds a way.” In politics, money finds a way.

As we’ve seen at the federal level, when contributions are capped, the money flows elsewhere.

If a corporation really wants to back a candidate, their money will flow to a political action committee to be spent on so-called independent expenditures. We saw it in the primary.

Think of the amateurish flyer from a group called People4SaltLakeCity, claiming candidates Luz Escamilla, David Ibarra and Erin Mendenhall were sheep manipulated by Gov. Gary Herbert; or some of the radio ads by Family PAC promoting David Garbett; or a lot of the billboards you probably saw with Escamilla’s name splashed across them.

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, there’s not much government can do about it.

Because those political action committees at least registered with the state, as they were required, we know the Family PAC and the People4SaltLakeCity are connected — they share two officers and a business address.

But neither has registered with the city, as they are required to do. And neither filed their required financial disclosure reporting who was funding the ads, as they were required to do under city ordinance on July 1 and again seven days before the primary.

The PAC created by Reagan Outdoor Advertising, the leading billboard company, reported spending more than $104,000 on billboards up to the week before the election.

Four years ago, the PAC spent nearly $150,000 on billboards, mostly to defeat Mayor Ralph Becker, who had tried to impose limits on the billboard industry. It worked. Becker lost and Mayor Jackie Biskupski hasn’t made an issue of billboards since.

And the city has never cracked down on PACs that ignore deadlines because, as the rules are crafted, it’s kind of pointless.

“The only repercussion is a $750 infraction, but then we would have to prosecute them and to prosecute we would have to prove malice or ill intent,” said Nicole Smedley, the deputy city recorder in charge of elections reporting.

The city attorney’s office is of the opinion that they would have to prove the PAC officers knew they had to file and chose not to — not that they just didn’t know about the deadlines.

Smedley said that, in the past, she encouraged PACs to comply and eventually they all did.

We shouldn’t blame Smedley. She’s single-handedly trying to enforce a practically unenforceable ordinance.

“It’s like wrangling stray cats,” she said. “There’s no state regulation on independent expenditures, so there really isn’t here, either. It’s hard to regulate, especially as one person.”

The state has a reporting deadline for PACs, too, but it’s not until Sept. 30. So that’s when voters will find out whose money was attempting to influence the mayoral primary — two months after the fact. Doesn’t do much good at that point.

There’s still another layer to this that we have seen in past congressional, legislative and state attorney general races, but haven’t seen in the mayoral race, although it’s probably a matter of time: That’s the true dark money, the nonprofits that can wade into a contest and really never have to report their sources.

The more we try to tighten up the candidate contributions and the PAC contributions, the more likely it is money will end up in these shadowy organizations. Money finds a way.

So what on earth do we do? Unfortunately, in a Citizens United world, there aren’t many good solutions.

At a bare minimum, voters going to the polls are entitled to basic transparency — to know whose money is trying to sway them to support or oppose a candidate. That means the state needs to change its reporting deadlines so they actually function in accord with municipal elections.

Salt Lake City — and all of the other cities out there — need to put some actual teeth into their reporting requirements, as well. If a PAC is willing to throw down $200,000 supporting a candidate, why would they bat an eye at a $750 slap on the wrist on the off chance a city ever gets around to enforcing it. It’s like giving a parking ticket to a getaway car while the bank is being looted.

Fines for refusing to report should be commensurate with the severity of the violation, say 10 percent of the amount not reported. If you thumbed your nose at reporting a million bucks, you pay a $100,000 fine.

Then there are some more novel approaches that Dabakis is touting. In 2015, Seattle voters raised their taxes and in 2017 they all received “Democracy Vouchers,” $25 certificates they can donate to the candidate of their choice.

Last year, voters in Denver, Baltimore and New York City all approved or expanded public financing programs for municipal elections.

The idea being that if candidates don’t have to pimp themselves out for corporate dollars, elections can be cleaner and more transparent. It doesn’t get rid of independent expenditures or dark money, but it makes them matter a lot less.

Obviously it’s too late to get a program like this off the ground this year, so for now we’re in the dark, guessing whose independent expenditures are propping up one candidate or tearing another down. I’m not entirely convinced public financing of elections is the answer — but it couldn’t really be much worse than what we’re stuck with now.

The two general election candidates — Mendenhall and Escamilla — say they want to see a “clean race,” but with the system we have, its not entirely in their hands.