FEC complaint alleges a Utah candidate illegally coordinated with outside group to attack Rep. Chris Stewart

(J. Scott Applewhite | AP file photo) In this Sept. 19, 2019, file photo, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, leaves a meeting with national intelligence inspector general Michael Atkinson about a whistleblower complaint, at the Capitol in Washington.

Washington • Just days before the Utah Republican Convention, a watchdog group is filing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging a congressional candidate in Utah illegally accepted an in-kind contribution by coordinating with an outside group to attack Rep. Chris Stewart.

Foundation for Accountability & Civic Trust (FACT) says in a letter to the FEC that a person once identified as a campaign manager and spokesman for Republican challenger Mary Burkett’s campaign was behind a mass anti-Stewart text message from a group called Stronger America Fund Inc. Stewart is a fellow Republican.

Stronger America Fund Inc., based in the District of Columbia, lists Patrick Krason as its founder and “governor.” Krason is also listed as the treasurer of Burkett’s campaign and had been identified as a campaign manager and spokesman in news releases.

Federal law prohibits coordination between campaigns and political advocacy groups registered as nonprofits — which can take in unlimited funds from contributors and corporations without identifying their donors.

“There is reason to believe Stronger America Fund made, and Burkett and Burkett for Utah accepted, an illegal in-kind contribution in the form of a coordinated communication,” the complaint to the FEC says.

“The two entities both appear to be affiliated with the same individual during the time Stronger America Fund disseminated and paid for a communication beneficial to Burkett,” the complaint continues. “If so, it would constitute an illegal in-kind contribution to Burkett’s campaign. We request the Commission immediately investigate and if a violation is found, act immediately and impose appropriate penalties.”

The complaint stems from a text message apparently sent earlier this month urging GOP delegates to oust Stewart from office for voting to raise the nation's debt limit while in office.

“Anybody else would be a better choice at convention,” the text reads, adding that it was paid for by Stronger America Fund, Inc. and not authorized or paid for by any campaign.

Burkett, of St. George, is running a second time for the 2nd Congressional District seat held by Stewart.

She said the accusations against her “are false. Neither I, nor my campaign, have ever coordinated with any outside group.”

She said Wednesday that Krason had worked on her campaign but left its payroll in November and now is a volunteer. Burkett adds that she had no knowledge of the text message that went out from the group tied to Krason.

Burkett, who had previously posted on Facebook that she had nothing to do with the text message and reiterated that Wednesday, said the irony is that she’s being attacked for something she didn’t do.

“He's doing the very thing he accused me of doing, by the way,” Burkett said of Stewart. “He accused me of hiding behind a third group. He's doing exactly what he accused me of. And I had nothing to do with it.”

Burkett says she had “absolutely” no involvement in the text message that was sent and went online as soon as she heard about it to ask the group to stop attacking Stewart.

She says the FEC complaint shows “Chris is vulnerable and he knows it.”

“A Washington, D.C., group questioning a little grassroots campaign in southern Utah?” she said. “Come on. You know, this had to come from Chris’ people somehow, someway.”

FACT says it was filing the complaint on its own and not in concert with Stewart's campaign.

Stewart’s campaign said it was unaware of the complaint and was not involved.

Stewart won the GOP nomination in 2010 under what his competitors complained were questionable circumstances surrounding allegations of collusion against other candidates.

Then-Eureka Mayor Milt Hanks, who was vying for the open seat, alleged right before delegates began casting ballots that four contenders had conspired to drop negative information about Stewart — charges that those candidates denied and claimed was foul play by Stewart’s camp.

Other candidates running for the GOP nod alleged Hanks was a Stewart plant who had never spent any money in the race and then made unsubstantiated, 11th-hour allegations. A Utah Republican Party investigation overseen by then-Chairman Thomas Wright found no criminal wrongdoing, but did chastise Hanks.

FACT, which touts itself as a group “dedicated to promoting accountability, ethics, and transparency in government and civic arenas," says it is nonpartisan and has filed complaints against Democrats and Republicans.

The group came into the national spotlight when its former president, Matt Whitaker, was named acting attorney general after the resignation of Jeff Sessions. Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney, had led FACT, which The Washington Post said “is part of a national network of nonprofits that often work in concert to amplify conservative messages.”

Whitaker received more than $1.2 million during his three years as the head of the nonprofit.

The Post reported that FACT's address in D.C.'s K Street is a virtual office and mailing address shared by 200 other organizations.

The FEC now has only three of the six commission seats filled, meaning it can still investigate complaints filed with the agency but lacks a quorum to issue fines or make rulings.