Lobbyists and a Utah Senate leader create what critics call a ‘fake PAC’ to help friends

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Dan Hemmert, now the Utah Senate majority whip, talks at the Utah State Capitol on Nov. 13, 2017.

Lobbyist Spencer Stokes and Utah Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert were miffed when the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Term Limits attacked two state Senate candidates they like, including the cousin of Hemmert’s wife.

So, they helped form a new local political action committee, called Utah Term Limits, to send competing mailers. They created it one day after deadlines that would have required disclosing its donors and expenses before Tuesday’s primary election. So the source of the money remains hidden.

Senate candidate and former Utah Rep. Rich Cunningham — who is endorsed by U.S. Term Limits, while his GOP primary opponent, incumbent Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, is not — called the new group a “fake PAC.” He said it appears to have little if any membership beyond lobbyists who use dark money and late ads to muddy up who in his race really favors limiting the terms of politicians.

“I’ve had probably 10 other lobbyists reach out who are just flat out ticked. They say it’s probably some of the most dirty politics they’ve seen in the last part of a race ever,” he said. “I’ve had several senators reach out to that same extent as well.”

Cunningham contends that “it’s pretty obvious” that Utah Term Limits timed its creation to avoid disclosing donors and expenditures.

Stokes, though, insists the timing was purely coincidental and was in reaction to a late attack ad by U.S. Term Limits. “We were responding to a late mailer,” he says, which led to forming the PAC last Friday, the first day when it would not need to disclose donors before the primary.

However, records show the group created its website a few days before that but didn’t get around to filing state paperwork until later. Still, Stokes said, “There was no intent to skirt the law.”

Stokes contends that his group is transparent — in part because it filed paperwork showing who three officers are including himself, lobbyist Casey Hill and political organizer Karen Hammond — and said U.S. Term Limits is actually a villainous out-of-state group that uses undisclosed dark money.

But the new PAC’s paperwork with the state did not show Hemmert’s involvement, except by accident.

The phone number listed for Hammond, the PAC’s executive director, was actually for Hemmert’s cellphone. He said that was done on purpose because Hammond did not have a phone number available.

When asked about his involvement in the PAC, Hemmert said, “I was pretty frustrated when I started seeing an out-of-state, dark money, special interest group [U.S. Term Limits] send mailers that were lying about Johnny Ferry.”

Ferry is the cousin of Hemmert’s wife. Hemmert says he recruited Ferry to run for the seat of retiring Sen. Alan Christensen, R-North Ogden. Ferry is facing John D. Johnson in the GOP primary.

Hemmert complains that Ferry actually supports term limits but declined to sign U.S. Term Limit’s pledge for candidates — so the group attacked him.

“So, I was pretty irate and I was talking to Spencer Stokes about this. He actually said, ‘Gosh, you know what? I’m going to start a Utah state PAC to set the record straight,’” Hemmert said. “I said, ‘I’ll donate to that. I’m totally on board.”

(Courtesy photo) A mailer sent by Utah Term Limits to support Utah senate candidate Johnny Ferry

While Stokes said the group only responded to a late mailing by U.S. Term Limits, that national group had actually sent several of them over many weeks. But Hemmert said people decided to form the new PAC after a late mailing that they considered an attack ad.

When Stokes was asked if he would disclose who the new group’s donors are now, he said, “Well, we’ll disclose that on our [next] report,” which will not come until after the election.

He did say that he, Hill and Hammond are donors along with some Senate leaders, including Hemmert — who said he hasn’t actually written a check yet, but intends to do so.

Stokes did say the new PAC has spent about $8,000 to send out two mailings — one in Ferry’s race and one in Cunningham’s.

Meanwhile, Cunningham has taken sent emails in his district and has posted statements attacking the mailer sent by the new PAC. In them, Cunningham says he has been endorsed by U.S. Term Limits, which was formed in 1992, and his opponent was endorsed by Utah Term limits, which was formed last week.

It said the new PAC was formed by lobbyists, and he lists several of their clients from tobacco companies to a radioactive waste firm and pharmaceutical companies. “It’s time to elect a senator who will stand up to special interests and powerful lobbyists. It is time for a change,” it said.