A state senator on Wednesday called for a review of municipal campaign disclosures, partly on the basis of unsubstantiated suspicions that one city's lobbyist is giving kickback donations to council members.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher described the accusations openly in a Government Operations Interim Committee meeting, but he refused to name the city in question. A citizen had shared the suspicions with Thatcher, who told his colleagues he hesitated to relay them in a public setting because “it’s pretty damning if it’s true, and there’s absolutely no evidence.”
But that didn’t stop the West Valley City Republican from airing his concerns, saying the fact he couldn’t disprove the allegations was vexing.
Thatcher’s unidentified complainant claimed the city was significantly overpaying its lobbyist and surmised that the lobbyist was then funneling this extra money into the campaign funds of council members. When Thatcher checked the council members’ campaign disclosures, the forms were blank — no expenditures and no donations were reported — even though the candidates had clearly been spending money on signs and mailings, he said.
Thatcher, who co-chairs the interim committee, said he wonders how many other municipal candidates are submitting incomplete campaign finance reports because they lack oversight or don’t fully understand the disclosure requirements.
Rep. Andrew Stoddard questioned the prudence of adopting a top-down approach, rather than relying on city clerks and recorders to keep tabs on their local elections.
“I feel that this is very conspiracy theory-esque, not to discount what you’re trying to do,” Stoddard, a Sandy Democrat who works as a city prosecutor for Murray, told Thatcher. “I feel like we should trust the city recorders to follow up on these disclosures. ... I think saying we can’t trust our city recorders is slightly offensive.”
Thatcher said he isn’t impugning the integrity of city recorders and clerks, but he is asking them to hold their bosses accountable, which could put them in dicey situations.
“It’s not that I don’t believe they have integrity. Of course they do. The challenge is, there’s a reason why sometimes we have to have checks and balances, and this is one of those cases where I think we clearly need to look into this,” Thatcher said.
In state races, candidates are required to report every expenditure and donation, and the Lieutenant Governor’s Office reviews the reports to make sure everything is aboveboard, he said. That level of state accountability doesn’t extend to city elections, he said.
Even at the state level, it would be difficult to figure out if a candidate was omitting information from a campaign report to cover up illicit activity, a representative of the Lieutenant Governor’s Office said.
“We don’t have any audit authority. We can’t subpoena anything. So we don’t know what we don’t know, to be frank,” said Derek Brenchley, the state’s deputy director of elections.
The senator didn’t offer a specific solution for his concerns, although he said one idea would be to bar cities from hiring lobbyists who have donated to the campaigns of municipal officials.
Ultimately, Thatcher directed legislative staff to work with the Utah League of Cities and Towns and the state elections office to evaluate municipal disclosures so lawmakers have a sense of “how deep this rabbit hole goes.”
After Wednesday’s committee meeting, Thatcher said he couldn’t reveal the city where the alleged impropriety occurred because he didn’t want to make accusations without any supporting evidence. And he wouldn’t offer details about the identity of his informant because he was “protecting a source.”