Americans for an Informed Electorate closes as criminal investigation continues

(Photo courtesy of Joseph Demma) Joe Demma, a former campaign manager for Gov. Gary Herbert, helped form the controversial Americans for an Informed Electorate political action committee. It says it has now ceased operations.

A controversial political action committee co-founded by Joe Demma — a longtime campaign and government aide to Gov. Gary Herbert — says it has now ceased operations.

But first, Americans for an Informed Electorate raised another $372,000 this year and spent all of it — including paying the people who run it $73,492, according to documents filed with the state, obtained through a records request.

That comes after The Salt Lake Tribune reported earlier that the group raised big money from older people who say they were led to believe falsely that they were donating to conservative or liberal causes. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has said the group’s action may be illegal, and that law enforcement is investigating. Sources close to the investigation said that agency is the FBI.

Unlike virtually all PACs, the group never donated money it raised to political campaigns or causes. Utah law requires PACs to raise money only for “political purposes,” and the group claimed to conduct polls to give the public more voice. But it acknowledged its polls were not scientific, and usually not shared beyond perhaps its website.

Still, it was a fundraising powerhouse. Last year, it raised more money than any other PAC in Utah — and more than $5.2 million since 2016.

That allowed it to pay more than $100,000 to Demma (and possibly more, since it stopped disclosing over the past year to whom it was paying wages). Demma helped form the PAC on the same day in 2016 that he filed for personal bankruptcy, and both actions helped his finances.

Demma was chief of staff to Herbert when Herbert was lieutenant governor. That office oversees enforcement of Utah’s election laws, including overseeing PACs. Demma managed Herbert’s short-lived 2004 gubernatorial bid and his successful 2010 campaign for governor. Demma is still on the state payroll as a vice president of Mountainland Technical College.

Political action committees in Utah faced a deadline Monday to submit disclosure forms for their spending and fundraising through Sept. 30. Americans for an Informed Electorate submitted a report, but not in the required format, preventing the state from listing it online, said Justin Lee, the state elections director.

In an email, the group told the state, “This is the final disclosure report as the PAC has ceased operations.” Its old website, votethewill.org, also was not operational Wednesday.

Lee said the state was about to send the group letters questioning the legality of its operations, which could have led to a cease-and-desist order.

“We were waiting to see if they were in fact going to file any other reports” as the Monday deadline approached, Lee said. “But at this point, it [sending investigative letters] is not going to be necessary.”

Cox, the lieutenant govenor, has said his office referred the PAC to law enforcement last year, but that the unnamed agency asked his office not to take any action while the investigation proceeded.

Lee said on Wednesday that he has been in contact with the investigating agency — which sources say is the FBI. “I have heard from them and I know the investigation is ongoing.”

But that did not stop the PAC from raking in money this year as the probe proceeded.

Its disclosures say it raised $371,689 in more than 16,000 small donations from people around the nation.

That ranked No. 3 among money raised by PACs in Utah so far this year, behind only the Utah Association of Realtors (which raised $839,268) and a leadership PAC for former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, who is gearing up to run for governor, which raised $522,314.

Americans for an Informed Electorate also reported that it spent all its money and ended up about $900 in the hole.

Among its reported spending this year was $73,492 for payroll, although it did not list how much went to specific individuals.

Earlier between 2016 and 2018, the group had reported that about $800,000 went to what leaders said were four or five employees for salaries, consulting fees, health insurance, travel, entertainment, cellphones and car maintenance.

So far during 2019, the group said it also spent $5,700 on travel, $1,400 on insurance, just over $1,000 on car expenses, about $3,900 on cellphones and $1,200 on meals and entertainment.

Demma and Brett Payne, another cofounder of the PAC, did not immediately respond to phone calls seeking comment about the latest developments.

Demma said earlier that he stepped away from daily operations of the PAC about two years ago because he was too busy with his state job. But forms showed he received some money from the PAC last year, and until recently he was listed as a director of a related corporation, called Informed Electorate.

Earlier this year, Herbert’s office issued a statement saying the governor is disappointed in the “unethical conduct” of the PAC formed by his former top aide and campaign manager.

It read, “Gov. 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."