Robert Gehrke: Utah’s governor isn’t letting the coronavirus stop his last big fundraiser

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It just might be your last chance to write an enormous check to Gov. Gary Herbert before “Available Jones” becomes unavailable.

This week, the state’s titans of business and connected lobbyists got a reminder to save Sept. 4 for “Governor Herbert’s Farewell Gala!” Combined with his spring golf fundraiser, It will be, by my estimation, his 20th big-ticket event. The fall gala regularly brings in somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million on its own.

This time is different. It comes in the midst of a pandemic that has sickened tens of thousands of Utahns, devastated many sectors of the economy, and has schools grappling with how to reopen safely, but that won’t stop Herbert.

There will be precautions taken. The event will be held outdoors at an Orem amphitheater and seating will be limited to encourage social distancing, said Liv Moffat, the event organizer. A thousand people will be allowed into the venue, which has a normal capacity of 4,000.

And, unlike the rest of the state, masks at the governor’s event will be required.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is holding his annual fundraising dinner despite the pandemic. The money raised will help set up a center in his honor at Utah Valley University.

Tickets start at $1,000 per couple, $2,500 per table and run up to $10,000 for 30 attendees, who will be handed a pre-boxed dinner as they come through the door.

“We felt it was important to move it outdoors,” Moffat said. “We’ve done [the gala] every year since 2009 and it’s the last one, so we kind of went back and forth, but decided that with precautions in place we felt like we could execute it in a safe manner.”

The theme is “Feelin’ Groovy” — because that’s the word people usually associate with the governor — and the notice had the kind of brightly colored psychedelic squiggles and bubble letters you’d see on the side of a Volkswagen van or in The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.” A ’60s themed cover band will provide the entertainment.

By the way, if you are “Feelin’ Groovy,” you may have been exposed to the coronavirus and should probably do a “re-modified quarantine” — stay home except when you need to attend a political money grab.

The money won’t go to a political campaign — Herbert is not running for another term, of course — instead checks will be made to the Gary & Jeanette Herbert Foundation, a nonprofit the governor has established to help pay for the Herbert Center for Public Policy at Utah Valley University.

When the Herbert Center is built, there should be an entire wing for fundraising, because whatever you think of Herbert’s policy chops during his 11 years in office, he has proven to be an aggressive and prolific fundraiser.

His worst misstep came during his last reelection run in 2016, where he summoned the state’s highest profile lobbyists to the Alta Club and, according to an audio recording I obtained, he committed to meeting with their clients provided they come bearing a check for his campaign, pretty much the definition of pay-to-play.

“I’ll just say, I’m available. I’m Available Jones,” the governor told them, a reference to a character in the Lil Abner comic strip who was always available for hire, for the right price. Groovy.

The fundraising didn’t let up, even after he decided not to run again and privately donors I’ve talked to grumble about getting hit up for donations over and over. The pressure is heightened given a struggling economy and competition from candidates who will be on the ballot in November.

Maybe some of those who plan to attend aren’t doing it because they believe in the governor’s legacy, rather because they think the governor can still help them during his last five months in office.

What’s more, because the governor is running the money through his nonprofit, the donors don’t have to be disclosed the same way they would if he was raising money for a campaign or political action committee.

By the time the foundation files its annual report to the IRS, the governor will be out of office. Because of COVID-related delays in tax filings, he still has not reported donors from last year’s event. That goes against the governor’s long-standing argument that people should be able to give candidates as much as they want provided the money is transparent.

At a minimum, the governor should make the donors to his policy center public.

Better yet, he could hold the fundraiser later, even after a new governor is in office, if necessary, while we wait for the pandemic to die down. His real friends will support him even if there’s a “former” before his title. And if they aren’t really his friends we shouldn’t be making it easy for special interests to squeeze another favor out of the governor as he backs out of office, as always, with a hand out.

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