Competing allegations say that both GOP Rep. Mia Love and Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams are using illegal campaign donations.
Call it the battle of competing complaints to the Federal Election Commission — an agency that by law cannot comment on complaints, nor confirm their existence, until after final rulings. But that does not stop groups who file from publicizing their allegations.
Earlier this week, The Salt Lake Tribune wrote an online story about Salt Lake County Republican Chairman Scott Miller alleging illegal donations to McAdams. Then McAdams’ campaign pointed out an earlier complaint by the left-leaning American Democracy Legal Fund alleging the same against Love.
“There ought to be reporting on all the FEC complaints, not just the ones that Republicans file against us,” said Alyson Heyrend, spokeswoman for McAdams. She said her campaign gave a heads-up to The Tribune about the complaint filed against Love back in February, but no story had resulted then.
The following is a look at the two complaints — which both campaigns say are groundless:
The left-leaning American Democracy Legal Fund alleges, based on earlier Utah news stories, that the Utah Republican Party gave Love $120,000 illegally by paying for her campaign mailings in 2016.
However, Love’s campaign manager Dave Hansen said, “Candidates will often have the party do mail for them because they get a better postal rate. Republicans and Democrats do it. It reduces the cost on mailings a lot.”
He added, “It’s the Utah Republican Party Victory Fund that basically funded it. There was a debt left over from it,” and he said the Love campaign “tried to raise money to help the party in lots of areas, and if they use it to pay off that debt, that’s their decision.”
But the complaint says the arrangement was “an effort to blatantly evade the United State Postal Service regulations on nonprofit mail rates,” and meant “the Love campaign accepted an excessive in-kind contribution from the Utah Republican Party to the tune of over $120,000.”
It said paying for the mailing became an illegal, unreported in-kind contribution. It noted parties are allowed to make coordinated expenditures on behalf of congressional campaigns, but that is capped at $54,000 — and the $120,000 far exceeded that. Also, it said no coordinated spending was reported.
It asked the FEC to order the Love campaign to repay the money, and fine Love and the party “the maximum amount allowed by law.” No ruling has been made in the case.
“It’s something that is done by both parties all the time,” Hansen said, adding he feels the campaign violated no laws.
Heyrend said the McAdams campaign did not coordinate with the American Democracy Legal Fund on its complaint, and it came independently.
The group has come under fire as existing only to sue Republicans for ethical and campaign finance violations. It was started by David Brock, a one-time conservative journalist who switched sides to work on Democratic causes.
Miller, the Salt Lake County GOP chairman, filed a complaint with the FEC last week saying two big contributors to McAdams — John and Kristi Cumming — are evading donation limits by purporting to contribute in the names of their teenage children.
Also, Miller said McAdams appears to be improperly funding his signature “Ben Bus” through his old mayoral campaign fund, which has fewer restrictions and limits on donors than the federal rules governing his current congressional campaign.
Miller said he filed the complaint independently, and not in coordination with the Love campaign.
The portion of his complaint about the Ben Bus — a decorated school bus used in parades and an ongoing tour through the district — said McAdams’ mayoral campaign bought and used it in previous years. Miller said disclosures do not show the congressional campaign bought it, or is renting it.
“We are renting it from the mayoral campaign,” said Heyrend, spokeswoman for McAdams. She produced an internal campaign accounting document showing a $200 rent payment in June and there will be $200 monthly rent payments going forward. Federal law does not require campaigns to itemize expenses of $200 or less, so Heyrend said the campaign did not list this first payment on federal disclosure forms.
But Hansen, Love’s campaign manager, said McAdams has reported dozens of other expenses less than $200. “That’s also pretty cheap for renting a bus,” he said, noting it came to the penny for how much could be charged without reporting it. Heyrend said the pricing is fair for an old bus.
Heyrend said invoices for a wrap for the bus and for such things as maintenance came in just before the deadline for the last disclosure, and were paid afterward — and will appear in the disclosures for the next reporting period.
“I think that bus is resonating well with voters, and that’s what has them concerned,” Heyrend said about the GOP complaint.
In the other part of the complaint, Miller noted that the Cummings had given the maximum amount allowed to McAdams. John Cumming recently stepped down as CEO of Powdr Corp., but is still chairman of Snowbird and is chairman of American Investment Co.
The complaint alleges the Cummings evaded donation limits by giving another maximum $5,400 each in the name of their three teenage children. It is not illegal or rare for teenagers to donate to political campaigns.
“We acknowledge that it is possible that these contributions were lawfully made,” the complaint says, but calls them suspicious because two of the three had never made political donations before, and the other gave only small amounts.
The Tribune made a request through John Cumming’s office for comment but did not hear back. Miller said he had not talked to the Cumming family about the donations before including it in his complaint.
Heyrend, meanwhile, said, “It’s not unusual for campaigns to receive donations from teenagers. You should ask Mia Love if she’s ever received donations from a teenager.”