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From expensive dinners to pricey hotels: How Utah lawmakers spend donors’ contributions

Some legislators spend a fraction of their campaign funds to get elected — leaving tens of thousands for other uses.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The public and Utah lawmakers mingle in the state Capitol Rotunda to inspect Utah students' demonstrating robots they have created in this Feb. 18, 2020, file photo.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting important local journalism.

This is the second installment of a two-part story from The Salt Lake Tribune examining campaign finance in Utah and is exclusive to subscribers. Part 1 explores issues of limited oversight and poor record-keeping.

Utah’s part-time state lawmakers, who earn $12,825 plus benefits during the grueling 45-day legislative session, often say they aren’t in public service for the money.

That sum, though, doesn’t take into account the tens of thousands of campaign dollars lawmakers have at their disposal. With loose rules governing the use of that money, legislators can buy gifts, expensive dinners and pay for trips to resort destinations — so long as they can establish a tie to their elected office or campaign.

A new Salt Lake Tribune review of five years of campaign finance expenditures provides the most detailed look in memory at how public officials are spending the money donated to them. The analysis found that legislators have spent more than $313,000 (or 3.3% of the money analyzed) on travel and nearly $100,000 (around 1%) on food purchases not tied in disclosures explicitly to their campaign or official duties. Another $53,000 (or 0.5%) was spent on gifts for constituents, colleagues and volunteers.

Several lawmakers have also spent campaign money on goods from businesses they own or have dispensed dollars to family members for campaign-related work, like putting up and taking down signs, The Tribune has found.

Most of these expenditures appear to be legal under state campaign finance law — but experts say they may pose ethical questions about personal enrichment and conflicts of interest.

“The optics of you spending campaign money, your campaign donors’ money, to go to a super expensive dinner or have a night on the town are not great,” said Daniel Weiner, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program, affiliated with New York University School of Law. Such spending contributes, he said “to a great degree to people’s cynicism about politics and sense that elected officials don’t always share their values.”

To conduct its analysis, The Tribune organized thousands of individual expenditures into categories, excluding lump sum expenses that fell into multiple categories and could not be separated.

Overall, the review showed that around 51% of the nearly $10 million in expenditures that the Tribune examined were for their campaign expenses, like mailers, signs and advertisements — leaving millions of dollars available for other purposes. And at least 11 of the state’s 104 lawmakers spent under 25% of their campaign dollars for their own campaign purposes.

Campaign cash can be used for other purposes and often is, for everything from political contributions to other candidates or PACs to legislative travel or charitable donations. And then there are the more random purchases.

Rep. Jim Dunnigan once bought a $40 drawing by Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley to hang on his office wall. Rep. Paul Ray periodically stocks up on air fresheners from Bath & Body Works to ward off the “musty” smell of the Capitol complex. And Sen. Dan Hemmert spent $27.68 this fall on hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug promoted without evidence as a cure for COVID-19, “to prove it was possible to do to silence someone who kept bugging me about a supposed conspiracy/deep state ban on the drug.” (He disposed of the pills after purchase.)

Some lawmakers say flexibility in the state’s campaign finance law is necessary to ensure that candidates who aren’t independently wealthy have the resources they need to serve.

“I look at other people who maybe are pretty low income and maybe it is a huge sacrifice to serve, so they kind of have to look at their campaign finances not necessarily as a perk but as a way to kind of make up for the loss of income in a way,” said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem.

Legislators receive annual training on the state’s campaign finance law, and anyone found to have broken it is required to pay back his or her campaign account for the expense and to dole out an administrative fee equal to half of the expenditure. But that happens rarely — in only 13 purchases among tens of thousands over the five-year period reviewed.

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While Utah’s law allows for noncampaign expenditures, Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois who has studied state campaign finance, thinks the average donor anticipates that their campaign contribution will go to fund exactly that — the campaign.

“If the legislator asks for a contribution so that they can go out to dinner more often, you wouldn’t give them money,” he said.

And if donors do give with the idea of supporting a legislator’s travel and meals, that itself could spark concern, Weiner said.

“We generally don’t want to see our elected officials indebted to special interests,” he said, “or beholden to a small coterie of rich donors, who, in this case, are not even really funding the election campaign but funding a lifestyle.”

‘Gone to the beach’

Many years ago, on the final day of a legislative conference in Florida, Rep. Patrice Arent, who retired Dec. 31 at the end of her term, remembers scanning the crowd to find faces she recognized from the Utah Legislature. She was puzzled when she couldn’t pick out a single one.

“Let me just say,” the Millcreek Democrat chuckles, “some of my colleagues had gone to the beach.”

Most lawmakers, including Sen. Jake Anderegg, say these gatherings are crucial for state lawmakers. Attending them is equivalent to “professional development” for legislators, exposing them to new ideas and introducing them to colleagues from other states, Anderegg believes.

“Going to these conferences is exceedingly valuable,” he said. “But when you look at just a raw campaign finance report, you’re like, ‘Oh, this guy’s staying at the Ritz-Carlton.’ And you’re like, what’s happening with this?”

And yet, he acknowledged that the destinations are no hardship.

“I’m not going to say it isn’t fun,” said Anderegg, who accounts for three of the 10 most expensive hotel stays individually reported by state senators in the period examined by The Tribune and spent $61,000 last year without an election challenger.

Since his 2012 election to the Legislature, the Lehi Republican says he’s taken his first trip to the Virgin Islands. The flight there was cheap, he said, but he stayed in a Ritz-Carlton hotel during the legislative conference.

Anderegg also said he never would’ve visited Puerto Rico if not for a Council of State Governments event last year. State lawmakers completed a service project while there, and he and his wife spent an afternoon exploring the rainforest in a “jungle excursion” — which he paid for on his own dime.

Many of the other trip costs, though, came straight out of his campaign fund.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) This Jan. 28, 2019, file photo shows Republican Sen. Jacob L. Anderegg attending the first day of the Utah legislative session on the Senate floor. His campaign account financed trips to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where legislative conferences were held.

Justin Lee, director of elections in the state lieutenant governor’s office, said it’s fine to use campaign funds for conference travel. But if a lawmaker decides to extend his or her trip for a few extra nights, that needs to be paid for “out of their own wallet.”

There usually isn’t a problem if a lawmaker brings his or her spouse along for the trip, since it wouldn’t make a difference in the cost of the hotel, Lee noted. And family travel should be paid for out of a personal account, not out of a person’s campaign, he said.

The Tribune’s analysis found that several lawmakers have paid for family members’ travel out of their campaign account. There is one state employee tasked with reviewing thousands of campaign finance reports, so identifying misuse of funds can be difficult.

A few lawmakers interviewed by The Tribune erroneously stated that the law permitted them to pay for family members’ travel.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, spoke bluntly about campaign-funded travel being something of a perk for state legislators.

Weiler, an attorney by profession, said he often exhausts all of his vacation time to attend legislative gatherings, so he doesn’t feel guilty about spending campaign money on his wife’s plane tickets. Sometimes, Weiler said, he’ll also bring one or two of his children.

The trips aren’t much of a vacation for him, since he’s typically sitting in meetings for eight hours a day. Still, the presence of family members coupled with the desirable locales has given him pause, he said.

“When they plan a legislative conference, they don’t do it in Gurnee, Ill. They do it in New Orleans,” he said. “They do it in pretty cool places because they want to entice us to come. And so, that’s probably the part that’s kind of felt like, is this right or not? And so, you know, I always make sure that I’m on the right side of that line.”

Though Weiler has avoided using his campaign money to pay for extra hotel rooms for relatives, he said he has drawn from his account for his family’s food and airfare — operating under the mistaken belief that the law allows for these expenditures.

Another lawmaker who got it wrong was Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan. Fillmore purchased airfare for his wife and kids to attend a legislative conference in Austin, Texas, last year as part of a $1,244 “family travel” expenditure he charged to his campaign account.

He said he thought the payment was fine under the law and noted that he’d been transparent about the expense “so that if there was any question we could identify it head on.” But he never heard anything about it from the lieutenant governor’s office, he said.

Lee said, though, that “just because they didn’t hear from us doesn’t mean it’s OK — it just means we may not have caught it or or seen it.”

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, is shown on the floor of the Senate at the state Capitol in this Feb. 12, 2018, file photo. Fillmore has paid for airfare for family out of his campaign account, an expenditure not allowed under state campaign finance laws.

Dinners and presents on donors’ dimes

Donations also pay for lawmakers to dine out with colleagues or constituents and to buy pricey presents, The Tribune analysis found.

While some lawmakers have periods of time in which they expense meals nearly every day, Lee said the lieutenant governor’s office keeps an eye on the frequency of food expenses and said regular purchases “would start raising eyebrows.”

“It’s hard to say that every single lunch is somehow a campaign lunch or every single day is something that’s related to the campaign or officeholder duties,” he said.

Daw said he’s known some of his colleagues to buy “really extravagant lunches” from their campaign accounts, which they use at every opportunity.

“Some of them are really, really effective fundraisers and they use it that way,” he said. “I know they would tell you, ‘Look, I raised the money and that’s what I’m doing. I’m doing the work of the people by having these lunches at Spencer’s or some other fancy place.’”

The disclosures show that state lawmakers have dipped into their campaign funds to eat out at the posh Palm Restaurant, the New Yorker, the Alta Club, the Capital Grille and Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

METHODOLOGY:

To conduct its analysis, The Salt Lake Tribune reviewed five years’ worth of campaign finance data for all sitting lawmakers using data from the state elections office, which is publicly available at https://disclosures.utah.gov/.

Each expenditure was individually coded into one of the following categories based on the information provided in the disclosures:

Bank/accounting: bank fees, PayPal fees and accounting for campaigns.

Campaign: all sign and advertisement expenses and other items identified as part of the campaign.

Campaign food: food when identified as part of campaign activity.

Campaign travel: travel specifically for a campaign.

Charity: donations that are not political.

Child care: babysitting expenses.

Conference: conference attendance fees.

Constituent: newsletters and session videos to constituents, staff for outreach, constituent town halls, constituent surveys.

Constituent food: when a disclosure specifies that a lawmaker is eating/buying food for constituents.

Dues: annual dues to Third House, the Legislature social arm.

Event: political booths, parades, banquets/dinners and all events not clearly linked to a campaign.

Food: food purchases when not identified as having a campaign or legislative tie.

Gift: Presents for constituents, colleagues and volunteers.

Legal fees: When listed.

Legislative: expenses that are clearly related to legislative service but not well described otherwise.

Legislative supplies: supplies for legislative service when specified.

Legislative food: legislative food when specified.

Legislative travel: when identified as legislative, trade mission or policy conference.

Legislative supplies: supplies when identified as part of an officeholder’s duties.

Loan: candidate repaying loan to self.

Membership: organizational dues other than Third House.

Other/unknown: when the expense is too unclear to be coded.

Supplies: when unclear whether the item is for campaign or officeholder duties.

Staff: when unclear if the expense was for the campaign or not.

Travel: when purpose is not described (includes parking and gas).

After manually entering each code into a spreadsheet, The Tribune then double-checked each expenditure to ensure consistency and accuracy before using pivot tables to analyze the information. Some expenditures have been removed from the data set when they listed lump sum expenses that fell into multiple categories and could not be separated.

Current Senate and House leadership members are the biggest spenders on dining out, since they’re often expected to foot the bill for group meals. Other top-spending lawmakers include former Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, and Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, both of whom shelled out at least $16,000 for noncampaign food over the five-year period.

In one of the priciest meals on record, Hemmert, the Senate Republican whip before he resigned to head the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, reported that he paid more than $1,200 for his Senate colleagues to dine out last year at an Italian eatery.

“That was an expensive restaurant,” acknowledged Hemmert, who said he remembers about a dozen people attending the dinner and that he’d picked up the tab.

Hemmert was also among the top spenders on individual gifts in the Senate, at one point reporting a $669 present for his 2019 intern. The former Orem lawmaker went back to his intern to refresh his memory on the purchase and told The Tribune later that he got a book on stoic philosophy and a coin minted during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, “the last stoic emperor of the ancient Roman Empire.”

He pointed to the exchange with The Tribune as evidence the state’s campaign finance rules are working as intended.

“You’re asking me about crazy random stuff because I’m totally transparent about it, right? And you can question, ‘Should you have spent it that way or not?’ and that’s fine,” said Hemmert. “But the fact of the matter is, you can ask me the question because I’m being transparent.”

Rep. Mike Winder has also devoted a chunk of his campaign cash to gifts — including at least 25 wedding presents for former campaign volunteers, colleagues, supporters and “community stakeholders.”

“I utilize a lot of campaign volunteers and part-time help to win in my swing district,” the West Valley City Republican told The Tribune. “And a lot of those happen to be kind of that former intern college-age crowd that’s very marriageable, I guess.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utah Rep. Mike Winder follows the vote at an April, 14, 2018, Salt Lake County Republican Party Convention at Cottonwood High School. Winder has spent hundreds from his campaign account on gifts.

Paying their businesses back

In addition to expensive meals and exotic travel, The Tribune’s analysis found that several lawmakers have also made purchases at the businesses they own through their campaign accounts. This is legal but could raise ethical questions about personal enrichment. Some of those are one-time examples, as when Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, spent $323 for “election night party, food and drink” at the business he owns, Laziz Kitchen, in June 2018.

Kitchen said he was able to save his contributors money and “stretch the dollar a bit further” by buying at-cost hummus and veggies from his own restaurant. And while he doesn’t think there was anything wrong with his actions, he likely won’t be holding future campaign parties at Laziz, “given the fact that it popped up between me and a reporter.”

Others have made purchases from their own businesses more often.

Jerry Stevenson, Senate budget chairman, spent at least $5,975 over the past five years on plants and flowers from the Layton businesses he owns: J&J Nursery and J&J Produce.

The Republican says he’ll buy potted roses to place on senator and staff desks to brighten up the opening day of session or poinsettias to add some holiday cheer to the Capitol building. But his two companies aren’t making money from the transactions, Stevenson said, explaining that he purchases the flowers wholesale without marking them up.

“This is a multimillion-dollar business I run,” he said. “I don’t know that I can line my own pockets with $1,000 worth of flowers.”

Prior to the Tribune interview, no one questioned these purchases, he added.

There’s nothing in state code that prohibits a lawmaker from purchasing goods from a business they own, Lee said, so long as the person is paying the “normal business rate.” (That’s not unusual for campaign finance laws across the nation, experts said.)

“If I would normally charge someone 500 bucks for a catered dinner from my restaurant but I charge my campaign $1,000, that would be problematic,” he said. “We would expect that to be disclosed so the public could see that and say this is what’s happening and make a decision about how they feel about that.”

Even if the intent is not for personal enrichment, Redfield said these kinds of payments can still spur questions.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“Even though I’m paying the same rate as if I went to florist Jones and had them do that, it still is a transfer of money that benefits me as a business owner,” he said.And therefore, what is my motivation?”

The state’s campaign finance law also has few boundaries when it comes to candidates or officeholders paying their family members.

Altogether, The Tribune found 39 of the 104 sitting state legislators have paid a total of nearly $47,000 to people who appear to be related to them for a variety of campaign-related duties — including sign placement, campaign management and photography and signature gathering.

Lee said payments to family members are fine under the law, so long as the recipient receives a normal rate and is paid for actual work done, but higher than normal payments “might raise an eyebrow.”

Rep. Brad Last, House budget chairman, paid his sons $7,952 over the past five years to put up and take down signs. One of those payments, to his son Jackson Last, totaled $3,940. This is the most any elected official paid to family members, per The Tribune’s analysis.

Last said he doesn’t see a problem with enlisting his three boys, noting that he hasn’t had to put up “a single sign” in 12 years and is prepared to defend the expenses to constituents with questions.

His children received a “pretty good hourly rate,” the Hurricane Republican said, guessing that he paid around $40 for each 4-by-8-foot sign and less for smaller ones and about half as much for the easier job of taking down the signs.

“I can’t think of anybody better to pay than my own kids to work on this stuff,” he said in an interview.

‘It does influence access’

Experts and some state legislators agreed that lawmakers can, at times, stretch the campaign finance law to their own advantage.

Still, they warned that cracking down too harshly on campaign spending could have unintended consequences by excluding all but the wealthy from elected office.

Some lawmakers will argue they wouldn’t own a suit outside of their elected posts, so they should be allowed to expense it. And the state only provides the essentials for legislative offices, so lawmakers often turn to their campaign accounts to buy any extra furniture and supplies. Others lean on their election accounts to pay for newsletters and town halls, recording or podcast equipment to communicate with their constituents and staff to help handle their workload.

And while campaign dollars can fund globe-crossing trade missions and expensive meals, several legislators said these perks don’t come near to making up for their financial losses. Weiler said he could turn his annual $15,000 in state reimbursement into an extra $150,000 or more in income if he gave up his legislative service and spent more time at his practice.

And Stevenson said he wouldn’t call his campaign fund a perk so much as a “pain in the rear end” because of all the reporting requirements and scrutiny attached to it.

“The olden style of basically noblesse oblige, that the only people who sought public office are the independently wealthy, is not one that most of us aspire to anymore,” said Weiner, of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program.

But the political reality, he said, is voters would likely punish lawmakers for raising their own salaries or directing more taxpayer dollars toward legislative overhead.

“I actually think that’s a problem, and it fosters a not terribly helpful dynamic where there are all these workarounds,” Weiner said. “In my mind, state legislators should be paid reasonable salaries and they should also be given reasonable per-diems to be able to carry out their duties.”

Many lawmakers strongly reject the notion that campaign contributions translate into influence — even if that money can legally go toward enhancing their lifestyles. But in a state with unlimited contributions, Arent said massive donations can shape people’s opinions about the Legislature.

“I don’t think the perception of those who can contribute a lot is a good one. I don’t think the perception that they could influence legislators is healthy,” she said. “And in some cases, I think it does influence access to government officials.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek speaks with colleagues during the first day of the session at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Monday, Jan. 26.

- Salt Lake Tribune reporter Sydnee Gonzalez contributed to this report

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