‘Killing two birds with one stone’: Lobbyist, political news publisher and columnist asks for an interview and offers campaign cash in email to state senator

Earlier this month, lobbyist, UtahPolicy.com publisher and Deseret News columnist LaVarr Webb reached out to Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, in the hopes of scheduling a five-minute sit down, according to an email obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.

The purpose of the meeting was two-fold, Webb wrote: to pick Stevenson’s brain for an upcoming column, and to deliver a campaign check from one of Webb’s corporate lobbying clients.

“I’m writing because I have a client that would like to make a contribution to you,” Webb’s email begins, before identifying the client and requesting a brief meeting. “Just 5 minutes or so. I’d also like to ask you about your legislative priorities for an article in Utah Policy Daily or the Pignanelli/Webb column in the Deseret News.”

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said the email is indicative of the “back network” that operates around state government. Dabakis provided the email to The Tribune after an anonymous person slipped it under his office door, Dabakis said.

A lawyer might argue that no legal lines were crossed, Dabakis said, but the people of Utah know it’s not right to hold out a campaign contribution while asking for an interview with a man who oversees the state budget.

“Even if it is legal, it’s corrupt,” Dabakis said. “This was pay to play.”

Stevenson and Webb both confirmed the authenticity of the email, and that no such meeting had yet taken place and no contribution was made by Webb’s corporate client.

Webb was adamant that his email was not intended to buy access to a lawmaker. He said he regularly meets or talks with lawmakers to gather information for his website and columns.

“I never have trouble getting calls back,” Webb said, “or setting meeting for things I’m trying to write.”

Rather than request a single meeting for both lobbying and journalistic purposes, Webb said his email was intended to send a single request for two separate discussions.

“This client did want to give a contribution to him,” Webb said. “I guess that was killing two birds with one stone.”

In the email, Webb went on to applaud Stevenson and other legislative leaders for their long-term and “visionary” approach to the state’s challenges. He then suggested the meeting with Stevenson — the Senate’s budget chairman — could occur during November’s interim meetings at the State Capitol.

“I know it is inappropriate to make a contribution during legislative sessions,” Webb wrote, “but I’m not sure about interim days.”

Stevenson said he’s routinely asked about his budget priorities, by Webb and others, and that his answer is always the same.

“I want to see a balanced budget at the end of the session,” Stevenson said.

He added that he is particularly cautious and respectful toward Utah’s campaign contribution rules. He would never accept a contribution on Capitol Hill, Stevenson said, and tries to keep both the letter and spirit of the law.

“I would not cross the street and take the contribution either,” he said.

Dabakis said Webb’s relationship with the Deseret News, which runs a weekly column by Webb and fellow lobbyist Frank Pignanelli, adds to his concerns regarding the email.

“I have been saying for years that the Deseret News is out of bounds,” Dabakis said. “These are lobbyists and they’re using that Sunday column as a platform for their clients.”

Webb is a former managing editor of the Deseret News and was a policy adviser and campaign manager for former Gov. Mike Leavitt. Pignanelli was minority leader of the Utah House.

Deseret News editor Doug Wilks did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.