Joe Demma has served as Gov. Gary Herbert’s campaign manager and, when Herbert was lieutenant governor, as his chief of staff. Demma is still on the state payroll, now as vice president of Mountainland Technical College.
He also is co-founder of “Americans for an Informed Electorate,” a political action committee that raises more money than any other PAC in the state — including those operated by such powerful interests as realtors, banks, labor unions and political leaders.
Critics contend it may be a scam that masquerades as a political polling firm to seek donations through persistent robocalls, often to older people who wrongly think they are donating to a favorite cause. The Better Business Bureau gives it an F grade for failing to address complaints.
Analysis of state disclosure forms shows the PAC never donated money to any other candidates or causes, as most PACs are created to do. All its funds have gone toward fundraising and what it acknowledges are nonscientific polls — and to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to its few employees.
“I’m not sure that ‘scam’ is accurate,” Demma said in an interview. “It’s definitely well intended.” Another co-founder of the group, Brett Payne, is more adamant. “It is not a scam.”
Demma says he stepped away from the group’s daily operations about two years ago because he was too busy with his regular state job. But disclosure forms show he still received some payments from the PAC last year. He and his wife also are still listed as directors of a related corporation, called Informed Electorate.
Demma said still being listed as a corporate director was a “technical oversight,” and said the PAC paid him some money last year “because there was still some residual things where I would go help them.”
Herbert on Wednesday — after The Tribune story first appeared — issued a statement saying he is disappointed in the “unethical conduct” of the PAC.
“Governor Herbert has had no knowledge of the so-called PAC formed by former state employee, Joe Demma. Demma separated from the Lieutenant Governor’s Office 10 years ago. The governor is tremendously disappointed to learn of the unethical conduct carried out by this organization, and emphasizes the importance of ethical behavior in all campaign-related matters,” the statement said.
A fundraising force
Demma says the PAC was born before the 2016 presidential election as he heard frustrated friends and coworkers say their views didn’t really count and didn’t sway politics or politicians.
He and Payne say they came up with the idea of a PAC that would perform polls and send the results to elected officials to give people a louder voice to influence those in power. Demma said the idea also was to invite respondents, after receiving a few polling calls, to donate to support its ongoing operations.
It became a fundraising powerhouse.
Last year, disclosure forms show it raised $1.8 million from donors nationwide — No. 1 among all Utah PACs. The Utah Association of Realtors was second at $1.2 million. Herbert’s Governor’s Leadership PAC was No. 3 at $621,700.
Analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune shows the group raised nearly $4.8 million between 2016 and 2018. About $800,000 went to what leaders say are four or five employees in the three years for salaries, consulting fees, health insurance, travel, entertainment, cellphones and car maintenance.
For example, Demma was paid $77,500 in consulting fees in 2017. That was more than his $75,020 in compensation for his state job that year as then-director of public relations for Mountainland Technical College ($56,576 in wages and $18,444 in benefits). The following year, Demma’s state compensation jumped 80 percent, to $137,116, when he became a vice president in August.
Also, Demma was likely included in the $206,000 the PAC said went to general staff salaries that year, although it did not disclose amounts by employee.
Payne, the PAC’s primary officer, said he believes compensation it pays is fair. “For some of us, it’s a full-time job,” he said. “We’ve compared ourselves to similar nonprofits and tried to keep our salaries and our percentages of donations” used for administration comparable to them.
Beyond the money for staff, all other money the PAC spent went to its ongoing polling and fundraising operations — including $2.9 million for telephone services and data management. It made no donations to politicians or causes.
Gripes about Informed Electorate surfaced on Facebook. Numerous people complained it was interested more in donations than their beliefs, and many called it a scam.
Because of that, ScamFinance.com, a review site that looks into potential rip-offs, said it researched it, and concluded the PAC “masquerades as some sort of organization doing political surveys to keep the U.S. electorate informed” and “reeks of scam.”
Demma and Payne acknowledge the surveys that the PAC conducts are not scientific, and do not rely on random sampling nor mirror the demographics of the nation.
“I made sure that people knew that it was not [scientific], that we were just getting a general sense of people’s feedback,” Demma said. “Nor did we, at least in my opinion, ever presume to be like a scientific polling firm of any type. ... It was more just getting people’s opinions and sharing that opinion.”
No mention could be found currently on the group’s website, VoteTheWill.org, that the polls are not scientific, but it has many invitations to participate in its ongoing “surveys.”
Payne said, “We didn’t set out trying to be a scientific polling company. We really just wanted to offer opportunities for people to have their voices heard.”
The PAC told people it would share findings with elected officials. Demma said in an interview it was done a few times by sending some results to members of Congress, but much of the sharing occurs by allowing people to look at its website (although The Tribune found it difficult to access results there). Payne said in a separate interview results are still sent at times to members of Congress.
But, he added, “We don’t hear back from anybody for the most part probably because we’re not a scientific group. ... We simply wanted to see if we could start a conversation, engage people, encourage them to become more educated on the goings-on of the country.”
People responding to ScamFinance.com said the PAC in its first phone call usually asks just one question. If people respond to it, they may receive more calls later — and some complain about even daily pestering but most said calls come once a month or so. After a few phone calls, respondents are asked for donations. A few complain about high pressure.
Rebecca Clark wrote on ScamFinance that after hanging up on a call, later calls reminded her that “I agreed to answer these questions. ... I’m sure I gladly answered the questions on the first call 3 or 4 years ago, but I didn’t realize I would have to answer their calls forever!”
Wendell Keith, 69, of Winter Springs, Fla., also complained on ScamFinance and talked to The Tribune. He said he was asked for a $60 donation and agreed to it.
“Next charge card bill I got had two $60 transactions, one two days after the first.” He tried to block the second by calling his credit card company. He said the PAC called to say it was having trouble processing his second request — and he told them he changed his card number and would make no more donations.
He said he donated because the PAC told him results of polls would be sent to Washington. “They called and got my confidence, and I ended up giving to them,” he said.
Senior citizens as targets?
The Tribune called many of the group’s larger donors to ask why they gave, and to have them recount their experiences. It found most were older, many in their 80s. Several said they did not remember giving to the group, although records said they did. Most said they were led to believe the group supported the same types of candidates they do.
Leslie Rooney, 70, of Largo, Fla., said she is a Democrat and believed she was giving to a liberal group, and donates to many of them. “They didn’t ask for much money — just $10 or $15 — so I gave to them.” She was surprised to hear that records show she made eight donations last year totaling $415. “I need to look at my credit card bills closer.”
In contrast, Norma Dorfner, 83, of Columbus, Ohio, said she believed the group was “pushing conservative Republican values, because that’s what I support” — and gives to many such groups. She said people on the phone seemed “young and enthusiastic” for those causes. She gave six donations totaling $385, and said she was asked each time before she donated.
When Republican Dorfner was told that Rooney gave because she believed the PAC was a liberal group, Dorfner said, “I guess they are equal-opportunity fundraisers. Maybe I should have done more research on them. But they weren’t asking for much money, so I gave.”
Both Rooney and Dorfner — and other larger donors — were asked if they would have donated if they knew the group was not donating to other causes and all the money went to its phone call operations plus officials’ salaries.
“Absolutely not,” Dorfner said, which most others echoed.
Payne said his group is not targeting senior citizens. But it only calls landlines, which are more likely to be used by older people than younger generations. He also said that is one reason its surveys are not considered scientific, because seniors are overrepresented.
He adds he is fairly sure that calls do not purport to support any cause or candidate. Instead, the PAC employs robocalls that use pre-recorded scripts, but they are monitored by a live person who can change to different portions of scripts based on how people respond. He said the same fundraising pitches are made to everyone.
Still, he said the group will refund money to anyone who seeks it. He said the website and phone calls urge them to call with any questions. However, when The Tribune tried to call the only phone number listed on the website, it was disconnected. Payne said that was a temporary problem because the company is shifting computer servers.
Not a typical PAC
Most PACs are formed to help candidates or causes. Informed Electorate does not do that. But Utah law requires only that PACs be formed for “political purposes,” and Demma says the group qualifies by the questions it asks and shares. Demma once ran the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, which enforces Utah campaign law, including PACs.
Demma said the group chose to form as a PAC to be more transparent through required filings if questions ever arose. Payne adds, “We disclose more than we have to.”
Payne says the group made some “strategic errors” when it began that may have led to complaints and online criticism. For example, he says it should have created a website earlier — because many people who received phone calls had suspicions raised when they could not find anything online about the group.
“People would do searches and couldn’t find anything. That’s where a lot of the early ‘scam’ language came from. We’re certainly not a scam,” he said.
Payne added that the true goal of the group is to help improve American politics, including offering education on a variety of issues on its website.
“I love the country and I am concerned about the nature of politics,” he said. “This seemed like an opportunity for us to engage people, talk to them and find out where they are.”
Clarification: This story has been updated from the original to reflect Gov. Gary Herbert's criticisms. The governor's spokeswoman on Tuesday had said he was unavailable for comment.