Sean Reyes, Greg Skordas trade barbs in attorney general debate

(Scott G Winterton | Deseret News/pool) Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes and defense attorney Greg Skordas debate in the KSL studios in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.

During his opening statement at Wednesday night’s attorney general debate, Attorney General Sean Reyes complained about Democratic nominee Greg Skordas’ negative campaign tactics — and then went on to read a series of negative online reviews from the attorney’s clients.

And the hits just kept on coming.

Skordas accused Reyes of putting a “for sale sign” on the attorney general’s office “the size of Central Park” and of taking questionable campaign contributions. He also criticized him for his actions regarding health care and his support for a controversial state contract with the surveillance company Banjo.

Reyes said Skordas would be an “activist attorney general,” charged his opponent with lying about Reyes’ record to get elected and said the Democrat was engaging in “fear mongering” over health care.

During the final minutes of the debate, the candidates repeatedly talked over one another and threw sharp insults and jabs as Skordas criticized Reyes for joining with other Republican attorneys general in a Trump administration effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.

“To join a lawsuit especially during a pandemic, especially at a time when we have 200,000 Americans who have died, to take away health care just because it’s politically expedient to you is senseless, it’s wrong, it’s unethical, it’s immoral,” Skordas said. “And the timing of that couldn’t possibly be worse.”

“That’s fearmongering, Greg, and you know that,” Reyes responded. “No one’s going to have their health insurance coverage taken away. The court’s not going to allow that.”

“Of course they are,” Skordas said, cutting off his opponent. “Of course they are. If you get rid of the Affordable Care Act, there won’t be affordable care. Don’t say that.”

“You’re lying,” Reyes shot back.

If the U.S. Supreme Court were to strike down the Affordable Care Act, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has said that millions of Americans would lose their health coverage under the law — including more than 200,000 in Utah — while the move would deliver a large tax cut to the highest earners and some corporations.

Reyes said earlier in the debate that he believes the law is unconstitutional and he denounced the decade-old health care overhaul that he said has “led to high premiums, staggering deductibles and soaring prescription costs.”

“The ACA has not lived up to its promises,” he said. “It has not provided more affordable, faster or higher quality care for the majority of Utahns. And for all of those reasons, legal and policy, I do support repeal of the ACA.”

Reyes was also asked during the debate to address the surveillance company the attorney general’s office had a contract with before suspending it after news broke that the founder of the company, Damien Patton, was once an active participant in a white supremacist group and was involved in the shooting of a synagogue.

Some lawmakers have likened Banjo’s technology to an Orwellian, “North Korea-esque” abuse of personal privacy by state government. But Reyes defended it Wednesday, saying the company offered a “wonderful tool” that used publicly available data to help law enforcement respond to emergencies like a child abduction or an overdose.

“An essential part of my job is protecting the privacy and liberties of Utahns,” he said. “And as technology advances, perps will use all sorts of technology to try to get ahead of us. We need to stay ahead of them.”

The attorney general also described Patton — who was part of the Dixie Knights of the Ku Klux Klan as a 17-year-old and joined a leader of the group in a drive-by shooting of a synagogue in a Nashville suburb — as “a good person who made a mistake in his youth.”

Skordas went on to criticize the contract with Banjo, which he called an “incredible waste of money” and said was simply “a way for a private entity to spy on innocent people.”

“There’s a balance between personal privacy and the right to protect people and Banjo is in no way following that balance,” he said.

Playing in the background of Wednesday night’s debate, which was hosted by the Utah Debate Commission and moderated by former Salt Lake Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce, was the question of why the event had been rescheduled from an earlier October date.

While the Utah Debate Commission only changes its schedule under extreme circumstances, KSL-TV reported last week that the commission had allowed a shift after Reyes said he would be in Hawaii to attend his father’s funeral.

But Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said in a letter to the Utah Debate Commission on Tuesday that the party had information the attorney general was not out of town the day of the debate. He accused Reyes of having “essentially hoodwinked the Commission” to change the schedule and called on the Debate Commission to inform the public about “the misinformation and inappropriate behavior of Mr. Reyes’s campaign.”

“It is justifiable and fair to require candidates to account for and explain deception, especially when that decision is done by someone who bills himself as the State’s ‘top law enforcement officer,’” Merchant wrote.

Reyes said after the debate that his campaign team had communicated to the Debate Commission back in July that the date it had selected was one of several on the table to lay his father to rest. Though he said logistics have proven difficult and his family still hasn’t found time to have a funeral, Reyes said it was ultimately the commission’s decision to change the date in an effort to ensure voters got to see a back-and-forth between the two candidates.

In reflecting on the substance of Wednesday’s debate, the candidate told reporters that he appreciated the chance Wednesday’s debate offered for him to “clear my name,” saying that his opponent has frequently maligned him through negative campaigning and that he hasn’t taken any shots back until now.

“For six months I’ve sat back and let my opponent, again, make accusations of criminal conduct and all sorts of outrageous things right on his website,” he said.

Skordas, in a separate interview, said he was surprised to see the conversation turn so negative out of the gate.

“I didn’t expect it,” he said after the debate. “I mean, I walked in the studio and [Reyes] would neither shake my hand, acknowledge my presence or say hello to me. I didn’t expect him attacking my integrity at the beginning by reading some reviews he found.”

“I think, in his defense, that he thinks we’ve attacked his integrity,” Skordas added. “And we have,” he said — but “in a factual way.”