Dark money groups are trying to influence Utah’s race for governor

Two flyers from dark money groups seek influence in UtahÕs Republican primary contest.

A couple of dark money groups have emerged in the hotly contested race for Utah’s open governor’s seat — one of them attacking former Gov. Jon Huntsman and another defending him.

The two political action committees have sent out mailers seeking to influence Utah voters ahead of the Tuesday primary. And both of them are funded exclusively by social welfare groups, which are allowed by law to keep their contributors secret.

That creates a dead end for people trying to follow the money, said Justin Lee, state elections director.

“It does leave a little bit of a black hole,” he said.

[Election 2020: Where Utah’s gubernatorial candidates stand on a variety of issues]

A political action committee called Victory Through Experience is responsible for one of the flyers, which seeks to turn the tables on those who criticize Huntsman for leaving midterm last time he was Utah’s governor. Huntsman stepped down in 2009 after President Barack Obama appointed him as the U.S. ambassador to China.

The mailer notes that Huntsman’s chief rival, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, has also made an early exit from an elected post, leaving his House seat when he became lieutenant governor.

“In this year’s primary, choose our next governor wisely,” states the flyer, which features side-by-side versions of Huntsman’s and Cox’s resumes.

Campaign finance reports show the PAC has paid for radio advertising, in addition to the mailers. The group also runs a pro-Huntsman website that solicits volunteers to help with social media, making phone calls, hosting fundraising events and reaching out to voters.

The political action committee was created in early June, and state elections records show that one of its primary officers is Clark Caras, former executive director of the Utah State Fair and state marketing director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development during the Huntsman administration. But that’s largely where information about the group stops.

Victory Through Experience has accepted more than $100,000 from a single donor — a social welfare nonprofit called Civic Voter Engagement. Because the nonprofit is a 501(c)(4), it does not have to report its contributors, Lee said.

Civic Voter Engagement’s website states that it is “dedicated to mobilizing citizens to advocate for policies that protect taxpayers, promote an informed electorate and register new voters.” No one responded to a message sent through the group’s online contact form.

The leaders of Victory Through Experience shrugged their shoulders when asked about the nonprofit that has been funneling tens of thousands of dollars into their coffers.

“I don’t know anything about them,” the PAC’s treasurer, Mike McCauley said of Civic Voter Engagement. “They send money, and that’s all I know about them.”

Caras also denied knowledge of the group, even though Civic Voter Engagement’s website formerly listed the same address as the one he put on organizing documents for Victory Through Experience.

“We actually have several suites of offices,” he said, adding that it was an “assumption” to presume that he’d be familiar with Civic Voter Engagement just because he’s used space in the same building.

State business records show that the same address — 5383 S. 900 East — has also been used by Chuck Warren, a Republican political operative who briefly worked as Huntsman’s campaign manager during his first run for governor.

Victory Through Experience also says it put out a mailer that erroneously listed a different group, Voter Education Victory, on the authority line. McCauley explained the mistake in an email to Lee, saying that a misunderstanding with the fulfillment center and the mail house led to the mixup.

Voter Education Victory is a corporation but has not created a political action committee that would enable it to spend money in Utah’s elections, Lee said. Among its directors are prominent Utah lobbyists Doug Foxley and Frank Pignanelli, who said he had nothing to do with the flyer.

Pignanelli said while his group wasn’t involved with the mailing, which encouraged voters to register as Republicans and vote for Huntsman, he does support Huntsman’s candidacy.

A second shadowy mailer that went out earlier this month takes a different approach, criticizing Huntsman for leaving his post as Utah governor to take on an ambassadorship in the Obama administration and accusing him of having a cozy relationship with the former president and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“Jon Huntsman left Utah to serve in Obama’s administration,” blasts the flyer in yellow text placed next to a black-and-white photo of Huntsman with Obama. “During this trying time, we need a leader who will be there for us.”

The mailer, first reported on by UtahPolicy.com, encourages recipients to call Huntsman and “tell him he should be representing Utah and its values.”

The mailer was paid for by a Colorado political action committee called Protecting Our Constitution, which was created June 15. A statement of organization filed with the state shows Katie Kennedy, a Colorado resident, is listed as the primary officer; Marjorie Haun of La Sal, Utah, is named as another officer.

Protecting Our Constitution lists just one donor: a group called Western Citizens Protecting Our Constitution, which made a $65,000 contribution to the political action committee at the beginning of this month. Expenditure records show the committee spent a little over $30,000 on the mailers opposing Huntsman.

Western Citizens Protecting Our Constitution is a Colorado nonprofit group, which lists Kennedy as the principal agent, UtahPolicy reported. Like the group behind the pro-Huntsman mailer, this one is a 501(c)(4), and does not have to disclose its contributors.

Haun said Wednesday that she was “not in a position to disclose information about our donors” and would not answer questions about why a Colorado organization would get involved in Utah politics.

“I’m involved because I’m in Utah, because I do oppose Huntsman,” said Haun, a school teacher, noting that she worries about his ties to the Obama administration. “You’d have to ask the person in Colorado about why they’re involved, but I’m involved because I’m in Utah and I do have an interest in who our governor is.”

In the absence of much information about the people who are trying to influence Utah voters from their mailboxes, the Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive government accountability group, is calling on national and state leaders to close legal loopholes that allow anonymous donors to dump untold sums into elections.

“Transparency is essential to a well-functioning democracy so that we each can make informed decisions,” Chase Thomas, the alliance’s executive director, said in a prepared statement. “Ever since Citizens United, our elections have been taken over by dark money groups that give complete anonymity to wealthy individuals and special interests playing behind the scenes in our politics.”

Although it falls to the U.S. Congress to enact a comprehensive solution, state lawmakers could adopt campaign contribution limits or restrict coordination with outside groups, Thomas continued.

But in Utah, which has no cap on political donations, the state Legislature has “created this ‘wild west’ environment for our elections,” he added.

Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.

Return to Story