Are Sean Reyes’ helicopter hog hunting and luxury resort stays ‘good for Utah’?

Reports reveal the GOP officeholder has spent heavily on resort stays, domestic and international travel and even an hunting spree in Texas with funds from supporters.

(Susan Walsh | AP) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes walks on stage at the Republican National Convention in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. Since the 2020 election cycle, Reyes has spent heavily on travel and resort stays over the last three years, with donor support, according to campaign records.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has traveled extensively since his 2020 reelection, with donors supporting more than 30 stints at high-end resorts across the country, in Mexico and in Europe — along with a Texas excursion to shoot feral hogs from a helicopter.

His public campaign reports also list nearly 135 separate airline ticket expenditures and a hefty share of restaurant bills, cab and Uber fares, airport parking fees and other travel-related expenses in cities such as Las Vegas; Phoenix; Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Atlanta; San Diego; and Santa Barbara, Calif.

The spending by his campaign on domestic and international travel, documented over a three-year period ending in 2022, includes the previously unpublicized group excursion to hunt hogs with high-powered rifles.

Donors and Gold Star family members joined Utah’s top law enforcement officer on the chartered helicopter flight, part of a two-day tour guided by a state-sanctioned depredation program, a campaign spokesperson said. The hunt cost at least $46,752, according to Reyes’ disclosures — not including a related $10,000 hotel bill or nearly $3,000 spent days earlier on a block of seven airline tickets.

The extent of Reyes’ campaign travel comes to light as he faces scrutiny over his close relationship with anti-child-trafficking advocate and globe-trotter Tim Ballard. In two recently filed lawsuits, six women have accused Ballard of sexual assault and other misconduct at Operation Underground Railroad, the nonprofit he founded.

Reyes’ work and friendship with Ballard have led some Utah lawmakers to question his focus as attorney general and to suggest the job should be filled through an appointment by the governor rather than elected.

In a written statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, Reyes said when he took office in 2013, he vowed to keep campaign and office finances separate.

”I will remain steadfast,” he continued, “in using state funds for official business and campaign funds for any travel or work deemed political in nature.”

”When I do have to travel, I am proud to represent Utah on issues of national importance,” Reyes said. “Whether in DC or other areas, it’s imperative Utah has a strong voice and representation.”

Reyes’ chief campaign consultant, Alan Crooks, also defended Reyes’ donor-funded travel from 2020 to 2022, saying it does not reflect the state attorney general diverting his attention away from duties and responsibilities in the Beehive State.

“These expenditures say nothing about A.G. Reyes’ focus and dedication to Utah,” he told The Tribune in an email response to written questions. “He spends the majority of his time on state-level issues in Utah and national-level issues that impact Utah.”

Along with his campaign travel, Reyes made publicized trips to Qatar, United Arab Emirates, the Mexican border and the nation’s capital during the three-year period.

Although Reyes is documented to have participated in one of Ballard’s operations overseas, Crooks said no campaign funds have ever been used for travel related to OUR.

The Reyes campaign reported spending a total of $491,206 in 2022, when the popular Republican faced no election. He made trips to the Mexican resort cities of Acapulco and Los Cabos that year, and attended a private retreat with policymakers, technology CEOs and business leaders in a suburb of Lisbon, Portugal, known as Dialog Global, according to the campaign.

His stay for that event at the Ritz-Carlton Penha Longa Resort — a lavish golfing destination touted for its “luxury without limits” — cost $1,660, reports show. It was one of at least four Dialog retreats Reyes attended over the three-year period, campaign reports show, sometimes listed as a “campaign expense” and other times as “consulting services.”

Organizers of the yearly conference, reportedly created by billionaire and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel sometime before 2015, did not respond to a request for information.

(Wikimedia Commons) The Ritz-Carlton Penha Longa Resort in Sintra, Portugal.

Connections, constituents: Why Reyes says he travels

The trips that were covered by campaign funds and disclosed in campaign filings do not include taxpayer-funded travel that is part of Reyes’ duties. To better understand the full scope of Reyes’ travel, The Tribune also filed an open records request seeking a daily calendar outlining his schedule over the past five years.

But Assistant Attorney General Lonny J. Pehrson earlier this month rejected The Tribune’s request, saying the office “does not maintain an official schedule for the attorney general” and that the calendar Reyes maintains is not a public record.

The Tribune is appealing that decision.

The attorney general’s office has already taken another news agency to court in an effort to keep Reyes’ schedule private. A KSL-TV reporter sought his schedule last year, and Utah’s State Records Committee ruled in May that it was public information and ordered its release.

The attorney general’s office appealed that decision to a district court judge a month later, and that lawsuit is still pending.

Crooks initially told The Tribune that “for the most part, travel and lodging listed on campaign reports were incurred by A.G. Reyes” — with a few exceptions where Crooks himself also went along, he said, including on one of the trips to Mexico.

The political consultant and longtime associate of Reyes later qualified that assertion, saying “at least probably half” of the campaign’s hotel tabs, airplane tickets and other travel-related costs were incurred by Crooks himself, whether he was traveling with Reyes, or in some cases, on his behalf.

The expenditures, he added, also have helped support fundraising, paid travel expenses for Reyes’ speaking engagements or to reciprocate in entertaining visiting dignitaries who had hosted Reyes overseas.

In the case of the Texas hunting trip, he said, it was partly a fundraiser and partly a charitable gesture, made possible by Reyes donors and on behalf of Gold Star families who’ve lost relatives serving in the military.

A spokesperson with Last Shadow in Temple, Texas, the company that guided the trip, said his firm is one of a handful in south Texas helping state Parks and Wildlife authorities with the eradication of invasive species. Feral hogs are targeted in light of the widespread damage they’re causing, spokesperson Mike Ayala said, with hunting enthusiasts paying for the experience.

Asked about Reyes’ airborne safari, Ayala said the company did not divulge “any information on prior clients without their verbal and written consent.”

Last Shadow, according to the company, flies hunters on guided trips over more than a quarter-million acres of private land across south Texas and also offers ground-based night hunting with thermal vision goggles. Ayala declined to specify average per-seat costs for Last Shadow’s chopper rides, but its website says those run between $1,100 and $1,600 an hour per shooter.

Several other campaign travel expenses stemmed from trips Reyes or others have taken to support Utah constituents, Crooks said, sometimes in urgent international affairs.

Key parts of Reyes’ travel, he said, are related to his leadership roles in groups such as the National Association of Attorneys General and Republican Attorneys General Association, as well as advocacy on high-profile issues.

Problems with immigration and border safety, human trafficking and the illegal drug trade, Crooks said, directly affect Utahns. And while other state and nationally elected officials frequently travel at taxpayers’ expense, Crooks said, Reyes chooses to fund his own through the largesse of willing donors.

Contacts, connections and knowledge Reyes has built with his trips, meanwhile, strengthen his job performance, said Crooks, “and it helps us leverage the power of Utah when we need to get something done.”

‘Egregious’ spending — or ‘the right thing’?

One Utah lawmaker, Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork and a member of the Senate Ethics Committee, said he was shocked by the Reyes campaign’s travel and spending.

“It’s egregious,” McKell said, “that the attorney general for the state of Utah, in a nonelection year, can spend nearly half a million dollars out of his campaign account to travel all over the world doing random stuff that is probably not relevant to his job as attorney general.”

McKell said the situation also has rekindled a debate over how Utah’s attorney general is selected.

“Should the attorney general be appointed?” McKell asked. “Or should we simply rein in campaign finance law and make sure the influence of money is minimized for the chief law enforcement officer in the state of Utah?”

The senator also questioned whether Reyes’ campaign supporters were fully aware of how their donations were being used. “Is that what the donors had in mind,” he asked, “when they gave him the money?”

Crooks said some in Reyes’ network of supporters have donated specifically to offset his travel costs.

“That’s what our donors have been so great about,” he said. “We tell them, ‘We need to offset this, you know. We have a lot of traveling expenses. Can you donate?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, what do you need?’”

Several large donors to the Reyes campaign listed on his disclosures did not respond to requests for comment, but one who gave a smaller amount said he had no problem with how Reyes spent the funds.

Casey Adams, a 49-year-old attorney living in Alpine, said he is a college friend of Reyes and a fellow volleyball enthusiast. Adams was one of many lawyers who have donated to his campaign.

“I haven’t found that I’m in a position to judge what’s necessary for someone else to do their job,” Adams said regarding his $2,500 donation in June of this year.

“I’ve known him a long time. I trust him. And so if he’s doing it,” Adams said, “it’s probably the right thing.”

Utah’s campaign finance laws forbid spending on “personal use expenditures,” as in, those which further a personal interest that “is not connected with the performance of an activity as a candidate or an activity or duty of an officeholder.”

Crooks said the campaign had been steadfast in devoting donor dollars only to campaign activities, and that included travel, airfare and hotel stays as well as fundraising events, attendance at conferences and intercessions on behalf of constituents.

‘Good for Utah’

(Lindsay D'Addato | The New York Times) The bar scene at the St. Regis Deer Valley in Park City, Jan. 14, 2022.

The campaign spent a three-year total of nearly $838,000 on campaign consulting, accounting and support services, according to public disclosures — paid primarily to four firms, including $469,124 to Crooks’ Salt Lake City-based Comprehensive Strategic Solutions.

Campaign reports show at least two dozen stints at luxury resorts — many labeled as “political events” — including Deer Valley’s Montage and St. Regis resorts, Daniels Summit Lodge in Heber City and unnamed others, in addition to 10 other domestic and international resort stays.

Crooks said many of those were regular fundraising events Reyes has held annually since shortly after he was first appointed as attorney general by then-Gov. Gary Herbert in 2013.

He said stays by Reyes in 2021 at Talking Stick Resort & Casino and Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, both in Scottsdale, Ariz., were part of his attendance at a yearly gathering of the Republican Attorney Generals Association.

The organization, focused on elected Republicans, also gave the Reyes campaign $125,000 in January 2020 — his largest single donation over a three-year period.

Four stays in Las Vegas — at The Mirage, The Venetian and Westgate Las Vegas — listed as “travel” on campaign reports, Crooks said, also were related to fundraising. Most of the campaign’s trips to other U.S. cities over 2021 and 2022, the consultant added, were for similar purposes.

In 10 separate instances over a three-year period, Reyes reported reimbursing himself from campaign coffers for “travel expenses,” for a total of $52,857 — with no additional detail on what he spent the money on.

Reyes’ disclosures show that most campaign expenditures pointing to a trip, lodging, out-of-town restaurant meals or other substantial travel expenses were almost always followed within days by fees paid to Zions Bank or Anedot, a digital fundraising platform used by political candidates and nonprofits.

The campaign also reported nearly $7,607 paid over three years to Mac’s Place, a membership-only club in Salt Lake City, which Crooks described as “space for campaign meetings and other campaign events.”

The attorney general’s stays outside Lisbon and in Santa Barbara for Dialog retreats, according to Crooks, were part of the attorney general’s annual attendance at that closed-door event after he was first invited by Thiel “years ago ... as a thought leader across many issues.”

(Rebecca Blackwell | AP) Peter Thiel at the Bitcoin Conference, Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Miami Beach, Fla.

Reyes now regularly attends the event, his campaign consultant added, “at a deeply discounted rate on his own time to stay ahead of the issues of the day with a bipartisan and progressive community.”

“All expenses are paid by [the] campaign,” Crooks continued, “or personally by A.G. Reyes.”

The attorney general’s trip to Acapulco and related visits to other locales in the Mexican state of Guerrero in early 2022 — as well as his trip to Los Cabos at the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula in December of that year — both involved policy discussions and coordination with Mexican authorities, Crooks said.

Months later, he said, when a Utahn was wrongfully arrested in Mexico in connection with a car accident, Reyes was able to get the person freed “by making a phone call” to one of his Mexican counterparts.

Through Reyes’ travels, Crooks added, “the leverage you have and the ability you have to get things done is magnified many times. And that’s good for Utah.”

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