After weeks of scandal and an active legislative audit, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes announced Friday that he will not seek reelection next year. The withdrawal from the election follows Tribune reporting on Reyes’ questionable fundraising practices at his nonprofit, luxury travel and decade-long friendship with Operation Underground Railroad founder Tim Ballard.
Reyes announced in September that instead of campaigning for Mitt Romney’s U.S. Senate seat, he would run for another term as attorney general. That decision, Reyes said, would provide an opportunity for Ballard, his “dear friend,” to compete for the Senate seat. (In the weeks that followed, Ballard was publicly accused of sexual assault by multiple women, which led to a series of civil lawsuits and a police investigation. He had previously been ousted from OUR, an anti-human trafficking nonprofit, after women made complaints internally.)
Reyes — who was appointed to the attorney general role in 2013 after the previous attorney general resigned amid his own scandal — released a video Friday afternoon announcing that he won’t seek another term as attorney general.
The Tribune has reported extensively in recent weeks on the attorney general’s donor-funded trips to international and American resorts, how Reyes exaggerated the relationships of his nonprofit, and accusations in civil court that he intimidated Ballard’s critics. Catch up on that reporting here:
Campaign-funded helicopter hog hunting and luxury resort stays
The GOP officeholder has spent heavily on resort stays, international travel and domestic trips that included a hog hunting spree in Texas with funds from supporters, Tribune reporting showed.
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 the 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 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.
Reyes’ chief campaign consultant, Alan Crooks, 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.”
A legislative audit of the attorney general’s office is underway
On Nov. 14, it was announced that Utah’s legislative auditor would investigate the attorney general’s office, after more than two dozen bipartisan state lawmakers requested the sweeping audit amid lingering questions about Reyes’ leadership and his long-standing friendship with Ballard.
But the results of that audit likely would not have come before the 2024 election, because the Legislature’s top auditor said finishing the investigation may take up to a year.
Legislators asked for the audit to explore how legal decisions are made within the attorney general’s office, details of trips taken by Reyes and whether staff believes the office is being run effectively.
They also want to know more about Reyes’ relationship with Ballard, and whether any state resources were used to help OUR or the making of “Sound of Freedom,” a fictional movie based on Ballard’s life. Auditors also are looking to see whether Reyes engaged with prosecutors investigating OUR and whether Reyes’ close friendship with Ballard impaired the attorney general’s prosecutorial judgment.
Reyes’ nonprofit claimed multiple partnerships it never had
Reyes’ nonprofit Liberate All Value All listed 18 “mission partners,” but many of those listed told The Tribune said they had never heard of LAVA or received any support from it.
The attorney general says he aims his nonprofit toward offering aid to some of those who need it most — combating human trafficking, supporting disadvantaged and abused kids, preventing suicide, fighting drug and pornography addiction, and helping impoverished people globally.
To achieve its goal, the nonprofit foundation says it “nurtures funding partnerships” and “finds and supports high-impact mission partners.”
When The Tribune published its story in October, LAVA’s website had listed “mission partners” that included the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, the Malouf Foundation and The Clothesline Project at Utah Valley University.
But a majority of LAVA’s 18 “mission partners” told a reporter they were unaware of Reyes’ nonprofit, had received no money from LAVA, and were not affiliated with the attorney general’s organization in any way.
Civil lawsuit alleges Reyes helped intimidate a critic of OUR
A Utah woman sued Reyes in November, accusing him of using his official position to try to silence her criticism of Ballard and the nonprofit he founded. Ballard and OUR also are named as defendants in the civil suit. The suit alleges Reyes, Ballard and OUR deprived a Utah woman of her right to free speech.
The woman, Suzanne Whitehead, works for a nonprofit that does anti-trafficking work in Nepal. According to the suit, Whitehead had publicly challenged OUR’s claims about how many children the group had rescued, the quality of the care the children received afterward, and accused OUR of taking credit for work she says her organization had done.
In one instance, the lawsuit alleges, Whitehead was working at a shelter in Nepal when OUR published a blog post highlighting the shelter, naming the victims and saying one of them had been trafficked to family members and others. All of this was done without permission, the suit states, and the named alleged victim was never actually trafficked.
Several representatives of OUR — including Ballard — contacted Whitehead’s supervisor, the suit alleges, asking her to delete social media posts and stop criticizing the organization.
Around that time, Reyes, who is close friends with Ballard, also called and sent a text message to the woman’s supervisor, the suit alleges. According to a text thread included in the suit, the supervisor told another OUR representative that Reyes had called and he would be willing to speak with Reyes, but insisted Whitehead should be able to say what she wants.
Reyes never followed up after sending the text to Whitehead’s supervisor, according to the lawsuit.
Nonetheless, the suit says that Reyes’ involvement, along with Ballard and OUR’s continued pressure on Whitehead and her supervisor, caused her concern and anxiety.
“As the complaint itself supports, the Attorney General sent a single text and made a few phone calls seeking to find common ground between two” non-governmental organizations, a statement from his office said. “He regrets if his communication was viewed in any other way and contributed to a feeling of undue pressure. He trusts the impartial court process to prove his motives and actions were appropriate and legal.”
Reyes and Ballard: A timeline of their decadelong friendship
There’s no question that Reyes and Ballard were close: They praised each other in public appearances; Reyes participated in an OUR operation; and the attorney general received a producer credit in the film “Sound of Freedom.”
The Tribune — using public records, news reports and a trove of social media posts — has assembled, and will continue to update, a timeline that shows the evolution of their relationship.
Reyes wrote a scene for a Ballard movie called ‘Cry of Freedom’
In 2018, the Utah attorney general wrote a scene for a Ballard anti-trafficking movie, according to documents filed with Whitehead’s civil lawsuit.
The civil suit includes a 2018 email exchange where Reyes writes about the anti-trafficking exploits of Utah Attorney General “David Reyes,” who is described as “early 40′s — energetic — Hawaiian/Hispanic/Asian of larger build — former MMA fighter now elected official.”
The scene opens in the Utah attorney general’s office at the Utah Capitol where “David Reyes” is talking on the phone with a Homeland Security official about a major bust — based on the arrest of Victor Rax, who was charged in 2014 with sex trafficking and died by suicide while in custody.
Utah lawmakers question: Should Utah’s attorney general be appointed by the governor rather than elected?
Frustrated in part with Reyes’ friendship with Ballard, state lawmakers began questioning in October whether major changes should be made in the attorney general’s officers, including asking voters whether the position of attorney general should be appointed by the governor rather than elected.
“I think there’s huge frustration with Sean Reyes on Capitol Hill right now,” Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said in October. “Being the attorney general is not a high priority for him and people are frustrated.”
The Legislature is considering a variety of changes, McKell said, and is seeking feedback from voters on whether the position of attorney general should be appointed by the governor, with consent of the Utah Senate, rather than elected by voters.
“We’ve got to get to the point where being the attorney general is the number one priority … and it’s clearly not for Sean Reyes,” McKell said. The allegations against Ballard are the latest frustration with Reyes for lawmakers, he said, “but it’s been trickling for a while.” McKell, who is also an attorney, said he is not interested in the job, but would like to see the office function properly.